World AIDS Day: Dispelling Myths and Confusion

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Note: This article originally ran on World AIDS 2014. Because the information shared herein is still relevant and important, we’re republishing it on World Aids Day 2016.

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DECEMBER 1ST. Now that Thanksgiving has officially come, gone, and been digested, it’s time to look forward to the holiday we can all admit is our reason for putting up with the eleven other months of the year: Christmas. Buying trees, getting presents out of the way by taking advantage of Cyber Monday deals, hanging up Advent calendars for those who observe the religious aspect of Christmas – today seems like the official start of the Christmas season. But for the millions of people living with HIV and AIDS, December 1st – World AIDS Day — is much more important: it’s the day when the entire world is reminded that HIV and AIDS are still a reality, and one that’s not pretty, not for the people who are being newly diagnosed every day and the people who have been living with both or either for years. Despite amazing scientific and social advances made in the past decades, there is still so much stigma attached and confusion surrounding HIV and AIDS, so much fear to even think about engaging in a conversation about either. But today isn’t a day for giving into fear – it’s a day about expanding our understanding and awareness and, yes, our compassion. In that spirit, let’s dispel some of the myths that continue to exist today:

HIV and AIDS affect only gay men.

This perception is a throwback — one that needs to die — to the 70s and 80s, when attention was first brought to the HIV pandemic, because the population of people first seen to be suffering from it were men who had sex with other men. But that’s not just true anymore; heterosexual men and women, and children all over the world continue to contract HIV and develop AIDS every year. For years now, international focus has been tuned into the AIDS pandemic in Africa, where 25 million people in 2012 – predominantly heterosexual women and their children – were documented to be living with HIV. In that same year in the United States, more than 12,000 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in individuals whose sexual histories included strict heterosexual contact, and compelling evidence has recently come to light that the fastest-growing population of newly-infected individuals in the United States is heterosexual males in black and Latino communities. Yes, new transmissions of HIV is still a huge problem in the gay community, but it’s become more than that. It’s a virus that will target anyone, regardless of sexual orientation.

HIV and AIDS are curable.

In the 25 to 30 years that HIV and AIDS have been studied, great leaps in progress when it comes to treating them have been made. There’s even a new HIV prevention method recently developed called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) which, when taken consistently every day, drastically reduces the chance of contracting HIV in HIV-negative individuals. HIV and AIDS aren’t a death sentence like they might have been in the 70s and 80s, when next to nothing was known about them. A combination of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) and a healthy, active lifestyle makes living with HIV a very manageable thing to do. And many people who do end up developing AIDS (which is the condition in which there is the presence of HIV and an illness which thrives in a patient with weakened immune system, like pneumonia or tuberculosis) can, with the appropriate medical attention, still successfully be treated. But there’s still no known cure for HIV or AIDS, and many scientists in the field think that there will never be one definitive cure since HIV is a virus that mutates very rapidly. That’s why it’s very important to prevent contraction in the first place.

You can contract HIV from shaking hands with somebody infected/being sneezed on/using the same utensils/any number of ways.

HIV cannot be transmitted by airborne contact. This means that someone sneezing on you, while maybe giving you the flu, unfortunately, will not infect you with HIV. You cannot get it by shaking hands with someone, or sharing a fork or straw, or using the same toilet seat as they do, or even by kissing them. The only ways HIV is passed on are by having direct, unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse with someone who is infected, sharing needles or other injection drug paraphernalia with someone who is infected, or coming into contact with blood or certain other bodily fluids belonging to someone who is infected. It is important to realize that HIV is not a casual-contact disease, since many people who have HIV don’t tell others (thereby isolating themselves and preventing themselves from getting the support they need) because they fear people will view and treat them differently.

HIV and AIDS only affect people who have them.

This isn’t true. HIV and AIDS are a pandemic – a disease of such large and sweeping proportions that it affects everyone, all communities across the world. Even if you think you’re at virtually zero risk for contracting HIV – maybe you’re abstinent and you don’t do drugs or you’re certain you’re part of a monogamous relationship (even then, don’t be too sure) – you can still contract life-threatening diseases like tuberculosis, transmissions of which are on the rise because HIV infections and cases of patients developing AIDS are on the rise. HIV and AIDS also undermine progress being made in developing and developed countries, and make conditions ideal for social ills to take place like poverty, violence, and suicide, which isn’t particularly helpful to anybody, HIV-positive or not.

There’s nothing you can do to help.

This is the biggest myth that needs to be wiped out: that other people will be or find the answer to this problem. It’s tempting to believe that, too, because it seems like such an enormous issue to deal with that burying your head in the sand and pretending like it doesn’t exist seems like the only response. But there are things you can do to help in the fight against HIV and AIDS transmission. Educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of HIV, and how it’s transmitted. Get tested regularly (every three months is recommended if you’re particularly sexually active). Demand that your partners get tested and know their status, and always insist on condom use when you’re having sex. Educate others about the pandemic, especially people who might not seek out the information on their own. Donate some of your time or money to HIV and AIDS research. And remember that, despite the stigma and discrimination that still exists today, people infected with HIV and suffering from AIDS are still human beings, human beings who oftentimes could use, and more importantly deserve, support, compassion, help, and understanding.

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