HIV and AIDS continue to pose a significant health challenge to communities all around the world. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the immune system. It can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), a condition that severely weakens immunity, and can be fatal. Currently, 35 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS.
World AIDS Day, held on 1 December each year, aims to raise awareness across the world about issues surrounding HIV and AIDS, as well as to show support for people living with HIV and to remember people who have died. This year’s World AIDS Day is focused on the theme of ‘Getting to Zero: Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS related deaths.’
One of the first steps to creating change is to encourage greater understanding of HIV and AIDS. There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding the diseases, which can result in stigma and discrimination, as well as creating barriers to prevention and treatment.
Here are five common myths and misconceptions about HIV/AIDS – and the truth behind them.
1. MYTH: HIV and AIDS are the same thing
HIV is the virus that causes AIDS – they are not the same thing. When someone is described as being HIV-positive or living with HIV, that means they have Human Immunodeficiency Virus in their body. Over time, HIV weakens or breaks down the immune system, making the body vulnerable to disease and infection. For some people living with HIV, they may not notice any serious symptoms for years, while some will experience flu-like symptoms.
After many years of damage to the immune system caused by HIV, the person can develop Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. This means the immune system is so weak it can no longer fight off a range of diseases with which it would normally cope.
2. MYTH: HIV/AIDS isn’t a problem in Australia
It is true that the situation in Australia is far less dire than in other countries around the world. The vast majority of people living with HIV are in low- and middle-income countries, with Sub-Saharan Africa home to 71% of all people living with HIV. However, HIV still exists in Australia. It is estimated that there are around 24,700 people living with HIV in Australia, with 1,236 new diagnoses in 2013.
3. MYTH: I shouldn’t get too close to someone with HIV/AIDS
HIV can be transmitted through contact with infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. For this reason, most cases are transmitted through unprotected sexual contact. It can also be transmitted through needles contaminated with HIV-infected blood (such as needles used for injecting drugs, tattooing or body piercing.)
You cannot get HIV from simply being around someone who is HIV positive. Things like hugging, holding hands, sharing drinking glasses and eating utensils, sharing exercise equipment, sharing toothbrushes or razors, coughing and sneezing pose no threat. There is no proven case of transmission from the tears, sweat or saliva of an infected person.
4. MYTH: Only gay men, sex workers and drug users get HIV/AIDS
Anyone can become HIV-positive. Everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, is at risk of getting HIV from blood-to-blood contact, sharing needles and unsafe sex. It is true that most men do become HIV-positive through sexual contact with other men, due to the greater risk of blood contact, but around 16% of men and 78% of women become HIV-positive through unsafe heterosexual contact. Globally, HIV is spread most often through heterosexual contact.
5. MYTH: HIV/AIDS is a death sentence
When the AIDS epidemic first became prevalent in the 80s and 90s, the death rate was extremely high, and a diagnosis of HIV seemed a lot like a death sentence. However, over time the medicines available to treat HIV have become better, more effective and easier to take. While there is still no cure in sign, antiretroviral drugs allow people with HIV and even AIDs to live much longer, healthier lives.
How to prevent HIV transmission
• Always practice safer sex.
• Don’t share needles or personal care items like razors.
• Get tested – a confidential blood test can be done at any GP or sexual health clinic.
Find out more at worldaidsday.org.au