AIDS Day: Busting common misconceptions about HIV and AIDS

AIDS Day: Busting common misconceptions about HIV and AIDS

Medical science has come a long way since the 1980s when doctors raised the alarm about the HIV epidemic globally (cases were scattered and underreported before that). Today, people living with HIV can have a near-normal life.

Now, they can even donate sperm: ahead of World AIDS Day on 1 December, a New Zealand-based NGO has opened its first sperm bank for donors living with HIV. Of course, donors have to be on antiretroviral therapy (ART) and have a super-low (read undetectable) viral load.

Despite these medical advances, though, there are still a lot of misconceptions about the disease among the general population. In the run-up to World AIDS Day on Sunday, we debunk some of the oldest, most noxious myths around HIV and AIDS.

But, first, a quick look at the origins of this day to raise awareness about HIV and AID.

The theme

The World Health Organization (WHO) established 1 December as World AIDS Day to create awareness about HIV and AIDS. The first World AIDS Day was observed in 1988, and since then, every year, organisations throughout the world come together to spread information about HIV and to end the social stigma associated with it.

Since communities play a huge role in the eradication of any disease, the theme for this year’s World AIDS Day is “communities make the difference”.

This year, the WHO has also released revised guidelines for improving HIV testing in at-risk communities and has urged countries to use digital platforms to reach the at-risk population and urge them to get tested for the disease. The at-risk population includes those with multiple sex partners, people who inject drugs, transgenders and homosexual men.

HIV/AIDS is, of course, still a major public health concern today. Globally, around 7.7 lakh people died of HIV/AIDS in 2018. The social stigma around HIV infection just makes things worse: it is the reason why many people don't get tested regularly and fail to get the treatment for managing infection in the early stages.

The myths

People living with HIV can live long fulfilling lives today. While ART therapy has been around since 1985, scientists are now testing therapeutic vaccines (which are given after someone contracts an infection rather than before) and alternative therapies to neutralize the HIV threat. Here’s a look at some HIV-related myths that should have no place in this context:

Myth 1: You don’t need to use protection if both partners are HIV-positive.

The HIV virus has many strains and there is always a risk of reinfection or superinfection. In other words, an HIV-positive person can get infected with a new strain (other than the one they have) which may make their condition worse. However, superinfection cases are not common.

Besides, there are many more diseases that can spread through unprotected sex such as herpes and gonorrhoea.

Myth 2: If you are HIV-negative, you can’t have sex with your HIV-positive partner.

While avoiding sex with an HIV-positive person is the only sure way to prevent HIV, the risk can be greatly reduced with the right preventive measures. Condoms, for one, are highly effective against HIV. Also, if an HIV-positive person takes ART regularly, eventually it reduces the viral load in their body to almost negligible so the virus can’t spread to a healthy person. And finally, if you are HIV-negative, you can use the HIV prevention medicines known as Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) or Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). These are oral medicines that reduce the chances of HIV transmission by 90% - even more when used along with condoms.

Myth 3: HIV does not spread through oral sex

Doctors say that it is rare but not impossible to get HIV through oral sex, especially if you have any cuts, sores or abrasions in the mouth. Also if you have bleeding gums or other sexually transmitted diseases, there is a high chance that you may get the disease through the oral route.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), US, out of all the types of oral sex, the highest risk is from mouth to penis sex though this risk is much lower than with vaginal sex or anal sex.

Again the risk can be reduced further by using condoms, ART and PreP.

Myth 4: HIV is the same as AIDS.

This is probably the oldest myth around HIV: a lot of people think that if someone is HIV-positive, they have AIDS. However, HIV and AIDS are not the same. HIV is a virus and AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is a condition that may occur when a patient doesn’t get treated for HIV.

If a person is HIV-positive, it means they have the HIV virus in their body. HIV virus damages the immune system, making the person prone to infections. However, if given proper medical attention, an HIV-positive person can have a near-normal life expectancy.

On the other hand, patients with AIDS have severely damaged immunity - AIDS is the last stage of HIV infection - and get severely affected by even the most common infections. Unlike HIV, the prognosis is really bad for AIDS.

Myth 5: An HIV positive mother always transmits the disease to her baby. 

It is true that a woman can transmit HIV to her baby during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding. However, in most cases, it can be prevented.

Most pregnant women have to undergo an HIV test early after conception so as to keep the virus from spreading to the baby. If she's found to be positive, HIV medicines are then given to the to-be-mom. These medicines stop the virus from multiplying in the mother’s body and hence reduce the chances of mother-to-child transmission.

Experts suggest that even a single dose of medicine, when taken during delivery, can significantly reduce the chances of transmission.

Similarly, ART can lower the risk of HIV transmission through breastfeeding. The WHO says that an HIV-positive woman can breastfeed her baby through the first year, provided she has an undetectable viral load in her body and she takes antiretroviral drugs throughout the period of breastfeeding.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health. For more information, please read our article on .

This is the second story in a three-part series on World AIDS Day 2019. Read the first story .