HIV: Fact & Fiction

As we enter the third decade of the AIDS epidemic, misconceptions and myths about the disease still loom large on the horizon. Despite progress made in understanding the virus and efforts to better educate the public, a number of these myths continue to persist.

Myth #1 Only gay men get AIDS.

"Unfortunately, HIV disease made its way into the U.S. via the gay community," says Debra Johnson, NP, PA-C. "However, worldwide, HIV infection is predominantly a disease that infects heterosexuals and currently in the U.S., most of the new infections are being found in heterosexuals." Johnson is a healthcare provider at the HIV clinic at the University of Southern California and principal investigator for the USC Clinical Trials Unit.

Half of the newly diagnosed AIDS cases worldwide are among women, and compared to men, women are four times more likely to contract HIV from sexual intercourse. AIDS is also now the number one cause of death among American black women between the ages of 25 to 44.

Myth #2 AIDS is spread by casual contact - hugging, light kissing, toilet seats, shaking hands and so on.

"They are not a means of transmission of the virus to our knowledge," says Charles E. Lewis, M.D., a professor of medicine at the UCLA's School of Public Health.

AIDS transmission requires the exchange of body fluids, specifically genital secretions and blood. Several studies have shown that caregivers of HIV infected patients have a zero conversion rate, points out Johnson, and if condoms are used appropriately, the risk is extremely low between sexual partners.

Myth #3 People who get AIDS are either IV drug users or very promiscuous. In other words, nice people � such as your teenage children - don't get AIDS.

This myth has been one of the most damaging of all, and has shrouded the disease with shame as well as ostracized those infected with it. The assumption that "bad people get what they deserve," has been an unfortunate conjecture held by a sizeable portion of the public, while the idea that nice people or those that go to Sunday school, Boy Scouts, etc., cannot acquire the virus. Not only has this prevailing myth bred bigotry, but many of the "nice" people have ended up infected because of ignorance.

"Many of the new patients that we are currently seeing are newly diagnosed," says Johnson, "Sometimes pregnant women who have only had one sexual partner. We also see newly diagnosed adolescents who are no more promiscuous than any other teenager."

Bottom line — AIDS doesn't discriminate. It will infect anyone, regardless of age, race, religion, gender or sexual preference.

Myth #4 You cannot get AIDS from having oral sex.

Oral sex is less risky than either vaginal or anal sex, but it is not foolproof. A few recent studies show that while transmission is lower, people have been infected with the virus via oral sex.

Myth #5 AIDS has been cured so we don't need to take precautions anymore.

"This is the most dangerous myth of all," says Lewis, "That AIDS can be cured."

With the advent of new drugs that appear to prolong the lives of people sick with AIDS, many have gotten the mistaken notion that a cure has been found. The result has been an increasing complacency, including lessening preventive efforts. But the drugs are far from being a cure, warns Lewis.

"Essentially, all we can do is suppress the multiplication of the virus with multiple drugs, and very expensive ones at that," he says. The drugs must be taken several times a day, can cause severe side effects and compliance is frequently poor because of this. Drug resistance is also an ever-increasing problem.

Myth #6 If we ignore it, it will go away.

Unfortunately, this is the attitude currently taken in much of the sex education given in American public schools and by parents as well. The attitude: just telling teens to "say no" and not giving them information they really need to prevent an HIV infection as well as other sexually transmitted diseases, or ignoring the subject altogether.

Johnson believes that this attitude endangers the lives of our children. "Pretending that sex is not happening to your son or daughter is truly endangering their lives," she says. "Our children need to be prepared. If your child tests HIV positive, it's too late to go back and say I wish I would have known."

She encourages parents to talk about sex, but more than anything, to leave the door to communication open. "And if you can't talk to them, then leave condoms out for them or send them to talk to someone who can discuss the subject."

Johnson also points out that parents aren't the only ones delinquent in this subject. Last year 200 physicians were polled about the health care discussions that they conducted with their patients and while 80 percent had discussed smoking, only 20 percent ever took a sexual history.

"If you don't know what kind of sexual encounters your patients are having," says Johnson, "Then how can you educate them on reducing their risks?"

What is HIV/AIDS?
How do I know if I have HIV/AIDS?
What does it mean to be HIV Positive (HIV+)?

Last updated 15 November 2011

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