7 myths about HIV and AIDS you need to stop believing
Image: Abhisek Saha/NurPhoto/Corbis
By Katie Dupere2015-11-17 21:56:44 UTC
We’re taught to fear HIV and AIDS like plagues — inevitable death sentences upon diagnosis.
But that’s simply not true, and it’s taken an unexpected source to point out the gaps and inaccuracies surrounding how we talk about HIV — actor and all-around controversial figure Charlie Sheen.
In an interview Tuesday with the Today Show, Charlie Sheen publicly disclosed his status as HIV-positive, describing his struggle to come to terms with the diagnosis in harrowing detail. In an open letter posted on Today’s website, Sheen said getting the news of his status left him feeling like he was living in an “alternate reality” or a “nightmare.”
On hearing about Charlie Sheen I feel angry that we still live in a world where someone can be blackmailed about their status #endhivstigma
— Shema Tariq (@savoy__truffle) November 17, 2015
But the diagnosis is a reality for Sheen and the estimated 1.2 million Americans living with HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus. An HIV infection can lead to AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, but not all those with HIV progress to that stage.
In perhaps the most powerful moment of his interview, Sheen said he decided to disclose his status publicly to “put a stop to this barrage of attacks of sub-truths and very harmful and mercurial stories that threaten the health of so many others.”
As a result, he showed that there are still many myths about HIV we need to dispel.
The stigma of being positive
Sean Strub, founder of HIV/AIDS magazine POZ and director of advocacy organization the Sero Project, tells Mashable that people living with HIV and AIDS today are often characterized as “monsters” and “predators.”
We’ve seen it with Sheen. Social media users have been quick to take to the web, denouncing Sheen as a sexually promiscuous drug abuser who “had it coming.”
Yet, with his disclosure, Sheen is bravely confronting the talk around his life and those living with HIV and AIDS. It’s a conversation we’ve had before, especially at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it’s one that has largely been ignored in recent years.
“For a long while now, HIV has gone off the radar screen,” Dr. Jeffrey Laurence, senior scientific consultant for programs at amFAR and professor at Cornell, tells Mashable “But I think Charlie Sheen brings this back into the context that, no, we don’t want to be complacent about this disease.”
To address the stigma around HIV and AIDS, it’s important to confront myths surrounding the virus head-on.
Myth 1: Promiscuity and drug addiction is the root cause of HIV/AIDS.
Every day 600 babies are born with HIV.
Together, we can get that number close to ZERO.
Let’s #endAIDS. pic.twitter.com/rBVI4XM44b
— (RED) (@RED) October 20, 2015
One of the biggest myths about those living with HIV is that they contract the virus through heavily stigmatized behaviors — namely drug abuse and promiscuity. Having multiple sexual partners or sharing needles while using drugs certainly increases your risk of coming into contact with someone carrying the HIV virus, but policing behavior does more to hinder the conversation around HIV/AIDS than help it.
“There’s nothing gained by the blame game,” Michael Kaplan, president and CEO of AIDS United, tells Mashable. “In fact, I think it inhibits our public health efforts immensely.”
Advocates stress the importance of safer sex and education on the realities of transmission, instead of efforts to squash behavior. The reality is that those with multiple sexual partners, who are practicing safer sex and taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drugs like Truvada, are probably more protected than someone in a monogamous relationship with someone with whom they haven’t had the “status talk.”
Regardless, Strub says it simply: “The cause is a virus.”
Myth 2: HIV/AIDS is solely a problem for gay men and people of color.
Strub says while it’s true that two-thirds of new cases of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. are among men who have sex with men, that doesn’t account for the fact that globally, the majority of people living with HIV do not fit that profile. Even if some groups are at a higher risk, it doesn’t mean that the virus isn’t transmittable to those who don’t fit a risk category.
“It isn’t solely a problem for any community; it is a problem for society,” Strub says. “Those at the margins, who are least well-served by the health care system, for example, are more likely to acquire HIV.”
In other words, everyone has a stake in the conversation.
Myth 3: If you have unprotected sex with someone who is positive, chances are you will contract the disease.
Andrew Pulsipher’s story of living with HIV for 34 years is helping to end HIV stigma.http://t.co/Xd9bOug5K4 pic.twitter.com/B7vqD8lZYp
— ARE (@AIDS_Response) August 14, 2015
In his disclosure, Sheen used a word that’s probably new to the general public — “undetectable.” In saying that his viral load is undetectable, Sheen is saying that his treatment over the last four years is working so well that the level of virus is too low to be measured in his blood.
Being “undetectable” is the goal of HIV treatment — it largely guarantees a high quality of life and an extremely low chance of transmission. In fact, as many studies have shown, there has not been a single proven case of transmission of HIV from someone who was known to have an undetectable viral load at the time of the sexual contact.
“When people are virally suppressed, they basically become non-infectious,” Kaplan says.
For Laurence, however, the key word is “basically”— because it doesn’t mean completely non-infectious.
“Being undetectable doesn’t mean the virus is not there,” Laurence says. “The risk of transmission is very, very low. But it doesn’t mean it’s zero-point-zero — so we recommend people practice safer sex, even if the risk is really low.”
Myth 4: If you only enter monogamous relationships, you don’t need to get tested.
Knowing the status of your partner is the only way to guarantee you aren’t at risk for contracting HIV — but that involves a lot of factors that knowledge may be out of your hands.
“The issue with relying on monogamy is you have to rely on your partner,” Laurence says. “If there is any chance that someone is straying, either sexually or injecting drugs, then it’s important to be tested.”
Strub puts it even more simply: “Anyone who is sexually active should get tested and know their status.”
Myth 5: Criminalizing HIV/AIDS will eradicate infections.
End the stigma around AIDS, more people than you know have it!http://t.co/u28VqjIPSu#HIV #AIDS #jointhemovement pic.twitter.com/zWbhenLubA
— Emily Perkinson (@EPerks15) September 15, 2015
Not disclosing your HIV status to a sexual partner is a crime in the majority of states. But it furthers systemic discrimination more than actual protection.
“The idea that criminalizing nondisclosure will reduce HIV transmission is a myth,” Strub says. “The evidence shows it is doing the opposite. It’s making the epidemic worse.”
Criminalization, advocates say, encourages the public not to get tested because of the benefits of ignorance. Not knowing your status, after all, is a defense and quasi-loophole to HIV criminalization laws.
“The major way the virus is spread is when people don’t know — and this encourages that you don’t know,” Laurence says.
Not being tested is a huge issue, even without criminalization exacerbating the problem. According to the CDC, more than 12% of those who have HIV don’t know their status. That’s 1 in 8 people who are positive.
“We are penalizing those who are taking the first step we need to take to get this epidemic under control, which is knowing your own status,” Kaplan says.
Even if someone were to infect a person with HIV or AIDS knowingly, there are other, more effectives laws that would aid in prosecution.
Myth 6: You can tell someone is positive just by looking at them.
“I’d just call this statement bullshit,” Kaplan says.
While there are visual effects of some HIV/AIDS treatment, like facial wasting and hunched backs, these are very limited today. Even so, HIV-negative people can have these same features for many other reasons. Appearance is never a guarantee. That’s especially true right after transmission.
“The way that this virus works is for the first weeks or months after you get infected when you may look great,” Laurence says. “But it’s actually the time when you have the highest amount of the virus in your blood and in your semen and in your cervical fluid.”
Myth 7: If you contract HIV/AIDS, you will die from HIV/AIDS.
862,000 premature deaths avoided by the progress in fighting #HIV #AIDS https://t.co/Qn8B4iFXAw pic.twitter.com/XCx2rvgpSI
— PhRMA (@PhRMA) November 17, 2015
Treatment has come a long way from the early days of the epidemic, making living with HIV very possible.
“It’s nowhere near the death sentence before we had effective therapies,” Laurence says. “Now, that being said, it isn’t a piece of cake. With the drugs HIV positive people need to take, there is a risk of accelerated heart disease and kidney disease in some people. But, in terms of lifespan, it’s pretty good.”
According to AIDS United, if a 20-year-old in North America is infected with HIV and begins treatment right away, they’re expected to live an additional 55 years — just five years shy of someone who isn’t infected.
That’s huge progress from where we once were — and it’s largely due to better, more effective medication. At the beginning of the AIDS crisis the only treatment available was antiretroviral medication AZT, which Kaplan describes as “toxic” and “intolerable” — something that you would try for a few months, then decide you’d rather die than continue.
How to support a friend who discloses their status
Knowing the truth behind the myths is just one step — next comes advocating for the inclusion of those living with HIV/AIDS, and supporting them in their diagnosis. To do that, keep these six tips in mind.
Ask what the best way is to help and support the needs of someone with HIV, which allows them define your role, Kaplan says.
Say clearly that you are not afraid of them or their HIV status, Laurence says.
Refrain from blaming the person for their status. Kaplan says any victim-blaming, including shaming past sexual activity or drug use, is a bad idea.
Help them understand that today, with the progress of treatment, HIV/AIDS not a death sentence, Kaplan says, and that for many it becomes a virus they can live with, without fear or discomfort.
Kaplan recommends encouraging and helping them access resources and the health care they need with the new knowledge of their status.
Strub suggests the best thing you can do is simple: Listen.
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Source: MASHABLE Lifestyle
7 myths about HIV and AIDS you need to stop believing