Myths about HIV and Aids

There are many rumours about HIV and Aids. Get to the truth with The Mix.

Picture of the HIV virus in blood cells

The Mix gets scientific.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) isn’t necessarily the death sentence it was once considered to be. Thanks to a new range of drugs, it’s easier for people living with HIV to keep their symptoms in check and live a relatively normal life. However, the number of people living in the UK with HIV has trebled since 1999.

We asked Rachael King, information officer for UK charity Avert, to help us tackle some of the more common myths surrounding the virus.

HIV is something only gay people get.

Not true. “Within the UK, cases of HIV are more or less evenly spread between the gay and heterosexual communities,” says Rachael. “But in the 80s and early 90s, it was mostly the gay community driving the education campaign around HIV. They have become very knowledgeable about it, but unfortunately a lot of the rest of society still know very little.”

With modern drugs, you don’t need to worry about HIV.

Not true. “It’s such a common attitude these days, you go to a doctor (GP), they give you a quick fix and you’re on your way. HIV isn’t like that,” says Rachael. “There’s no cure, and we’re still very far away from that. It’s easier to treat these days because the drugs have fewer side effects and there’s a move towards universal access, where people can sign up to treatment programs. But this is a privileged situation.”

You CAN catch HIV from saliva, toilet seats or discarded needles.

Not true. “This is a myth that came up in the 80s, and still lingers. To give you the medical explanation, HIV in saliva is so diluted that unless you’ve got a really bad case of bleeding gums, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to contract that way. The only ways to transmit HIV is by a transferral of blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or breast milk.”

Unless you’re sharing needles, it’s unlikely you’ll catch HIV from a discarded syringe – HIV only survives for a very short time outside the human body – but beware: needles can transmit other diseases, like Hepatitis C, so stay careful.

You CAN’T contract HIV from oral sex.

Untrue – semen or vaginal fluid can carry the disease, so if you’ve not been tested, condoms are still recommended.

People with HIV look ill.

Not necessarily. “In the primary infection stage, it’s said that people can suffer from headaches and flu-like symptoms,” says Rachael. “But generally we consider HIV to be symptomless, so people don’t live in the assurance that they’re A-OK. The obvious signs of HIV manifest later, as the viral load increases,” she says. So don’t expect to be able to spot someone who has HIV – if you expose yourself to risky situations, use a condom and get yourself checked accordingly.

If you have HIV, your child will be born with the virus.

Not necessarily. “So much progress has been made in the field preventing mother-to-child transmission,” says Rachael. By taking drugs from the third trimester of pregnancy you can reduce the chance of passing the virus on to your child from 35 to just 1%.

The results of HIV tests aren’t confidential, and your employer might find out.

Not true – the results of HIV tests are kept strictly confidential. “Within the UK, there’s a very clever way of storing your records – they’re not kept by patient name, but by a number and date of birth, so even your GP doesn’t have to know,” says Rachael (this is only the case if you go to a GUM clinic to get tested; if you go for an HIV test at your Doctor’s surgery, they will of course know the results). There’s no law that imposes an obligation on you to provide details about your health – although conversely, that doesn’t mean they might not ask. Visit the Terrence Higgins Trust for more details about HIV and employment.

Being on the pill protects you from contracting HIV.

Untrue. “One I hear a lot, which is terrifying!” says Rachael. Of course, the pill offers no protection at all – so rubber up.

Photo of HIV cells in the blood stream by Shutterstock.

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By Louis Pattison

Updated on 29-Sep-2015