Ever since the American AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, people have spread a lot of misinformation about HIV and AIDS. This is partially because scientists and doctors did not have any answers at the time – the virus was entirely new to them. Another factor was that HIV and AIDS affected particularly stigmatized groups, namely, men who have sex with men, people of color and people who inject drugs. Some of the myths from those early days have persisted up until now.
MYTH: The terms HIV and AIDS are interchangeable.
FACT: If left unchecked, HIV can lead to the development of AIDS.
Many people use the terms HIV and AIDS as if they are identical in meaning, but actually, these acronyms refer to different things.
- HIV is shorthand for human immunodeficiency virus. The acronym was made official by the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses in 1986, over the previous names LAV and HTLV-III.
Like the full term suggests, HIV refers to the actual virus itself. This virus replicates in the body by destroying white blood cells, also called T cells or CD4 cells. This compromises the immune system and makes it increasingly difficult for the body to fight off infections.
- AIDS is shorthand for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The phrase was coined in 1982 by the CDC, several years before the term HIV emerged.
AIDS refers to the symptoms and complications that present themselves after a period of HIV infection. These “opportunistic infections,” including some cancers, take over the immunocompromised person’s body and can kill them. A doctor’s goal is to treat a patient for HIV and delay the onset of AIDS altogether. Due to adequate medical care, most people living with HIV in the United States will never develop AIDS.
MYTH: HIV is always fatal.
FACT: There is no cure for HIV, but there are treatments available.
Despite years of research, scientists have been unable to find a vaccine or cure for HIV. However, there is a treatment called antiretroviral therapy, or ART, which can drastically improve quality of life and life expectancy and prevent progression to AIDS. People undergoing ART may find they have minimal symptoms or no symptoms at all.
In the past, ART was a difficult process with many negative side effects. Nowadays, HIV treatment has vastly improved. For most people, it consists of taking three or more antiretroviral drugs, which are sometimes all included in one pill for convenience.
For many patients, the goal of ART is to be “undetectable.” This means your viral load, or the amount of HIV in your body, is so low that it cannot be detected in a blood test or passed on to someone else. It also means your immune system will be more functional and can fight off diseases.
If you believe you have been infected with HIV, it’s important to begin ART as soon as possible for the best results.
MYTH: HIV is transmitted like common illnesses, such as the cold or flu.
FACT: HIV is only spread in limited circumstances.
Because of the potential effects of the virus, many people fear HIV. This may cause them to avoid or distrust people who are HIV-positive. However, there are only four ways HIV can be transmitted:
- Through unprotected vaginal or anal sex, and very rarely, oral sex
- From mother to baby through pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding
- By sharing non-sterilized needles, injecting equipment, cleaning water or filters with someone who is HIV-positive when using drugs
- Via blood transfusions contaminated with HIV, which is highly uncommon now
HIV is only spread through blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, vaginal secretions, anal mucus and breastmilk. Spit, sweat, tears, urine and feces do not transmit the virus. You cannot get HIV from casual contact or from being near someone who is HIV-positive.
MYTH: There is no truly effective way to prevent the transmission of HIV.
FACT: There are many effective HIV prevention methods you can try.
FACT: There are many effective HIV prevention methods you can try.
Those who are HIV-positive and those at risk of HIV infection can both take responsibility for preventing the further spread of HIV. Here are just a few ways to reduce transmission:
- Practicing Safe Sex – Male and female condoms and dental dams can reduce the risk of HIV transmission. According to the World Health Organization, male latex condoms are at least 80 percent effective at preventing the spread of HIV.1 It is recommended you pair a condom or dental dam with other measures for the best protection possible.
- PrEP (Truvada) – PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a combination of antiretroviral drugs that reduces the risk of HIV infection for HIV-negative people. Someone may wish to take PrEP if their partner is HIV-positive and is not virally suppressed or undetectable, if they have casual sex with multiple partners, if they don’t know the status of their partner or if they inject drugs. When taken daily as recommended, it is more than 90 percent effective at preventing transmission through sex and more than 70 percent effective at preventing transmission through drug injection.2
- PEP – PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis, is treatment that an HIV-negative person takes within 72 hours after suspected HIV exposure to reduce the risk of developing HIV infection. This is not as accessible as other treatments and isn’t always effective, so do not plan to use PEP as your first line of defense against HIV.
- Undergoing ART – As mentioned before, ART treatments can reduce an HIV-positive person’s viral load. If someone’s viral load is suppressed or undetectable, they cannot spread the virus to others. Be aware that the amount of HIV in the body can fluctuate throughout treatment.
- Using Clean Needles, Injecting Equipment, Cleaning Water and Filters – It is ideal to get treatment or counseling for addiction to entirely eliminate the risk of HIV, other illnesses and overdose. However, this is not always feasible. People who inject drugs can get clean needles and dispose of used needles through local syringe services programs (SSPs).
It is always important to inform your partners about your status and take responsibility for your own health. Keep in mind that even two people who are HIV-positive can spread HIV to each other, as they may have different strains of the virus.
More Myths and Facts
If your specific question about HIV wasn’t addressed in this blog post, much more information can be found at Avert or HIV.gov.
HIV Treatment at St. Hope Foundation in Texas
If you have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS or suspect HIV infection, it’s crucial to get HIV treatment early to prevent the spread of the virus. At St. Hope Foundation, your personalized CareTeam, which includes an HIV specialist, licensed nurses and a medical case manager, will work with you to provide HIV testing, manage your symptoms, maintain your health and help protect your partner(s).