Guys, it’s officially December (I know, I know, where in the f*ck did the year go?). And ICYMI: It’s also AIDS Awareness Month—a month dedicated to raising awareness and commemorating those who have died from AIDS.
Even in the year 2019, many people still don’t know much about HIV and AIDS besides the fact that Bohemian Rhapsody singer, Freddie Mercury, died nearly four years after his AIDS diagnosis, and Queer Eye‘s Jonathan Van Ness recently revealed he is HIV positive in his memoir, Over the Top.
Unfortunately, there’s still a huge stigma around both HIV and AIDS, and very inaccurate myths about what it looks like and how it’s treated. Here, our two experts, leading LGBTQ+ expert, Kryss Shane, LMSW, and OBGYN Heather Bartos, MD, debunk the myths that are commonly associated with HIV and AIDS.
1. You can contract HIV from sitting on the same toilet seat as or sharing a soda with someone who has it.
“HIV is a virus that’s most commonly transmitted via blood, which is how people get it through blood transfusions,” says Dr. Bartos. It can also be transmitted via dirty needles, or needle sharing in general. When sexually active, HIV is transmitted through unprotected anal or vaginal sex. And the virus can also be transmitted via pregnancy. AKA, HIV is not transmitted through sharing glasses, or plates, or bites of chicken nuggets, or other casual contact, says Dr. Bartos.
2. Contracting HIV is a gamble you can’t protect yourself from.
Only 54 percent of women would be interested in speaking about HIV prevention with their doctor, according to Nurx—an app that prescribes delivery birth control, PrEP for HIV prevention, emergency contraception, and home STI screenings. But preventative methods to protect yourself from contracting HIV in the first place are super easy, and should be discussed.
Like, first of all, use condoms. Condoms help prevent the transmission of HIV from one person to another—so, obvi wrapping it up can help ensure you’re protected. Next, if you’re sexually active with more than one partner, “Using something like PrEP, which are pre-exposure prophylaxis drugs, will minimize your risk of contracting the virus and minimize risks,” Shane says. When taken daily, PrEP is a real game changer, considering it’s more than 99 percent effective in preventing HIV transmission.
And BTW, if you’re interested in getting a tattoo, make sure you’re only getting tatted at a licensed tattoo shop.
3. You’re only at risk for HIV if you’re gay, transgender, or African American.
“HIV is about exposure risk and behaviors, not a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or race,” says Shane. Although it started predominantly in the gay community and was labeled a “gay disease,” we know that’s not true says Dr. Bartos. “Many women contract the disease through sexual activity, despite their race or sexual orientation.”
4. When you get tested for STIs, you don’t need to be tested for HIV too.
Dr. Bartos recommends an HIV test yearly if you’re sleeping with multiple people. “And remember: It takes a while for the virus to show up in your blood, so if you think you’ve been exposed, get tested, and then tested again in a few months,” she says.
5. If you have HIV, you will have AIDS too.
“HIV is the virus that causes the disease AIDS, but it doesn’t mean that just because you carry HIV, you’ll automatically have AIDS,” says Dr. Bartos. Peep Magic Johnson, for instance: The basketball player has been living for decades with HIV without it progressing to AIDS. Thanks to new and ever-advancing research and medications, this is also the case for many other people living with HIV.
In fact, although there is no definitive cure for HIV yet, using medications can lower the virus so much that it can become untransmittable. (FYI, this is what the Prevention Access Campaign means when they say “U=U”, or undetectable = untransmittable.) “As a result, people with HIV can live a life as full of romantic and sexual partners as anyone else who is HIV negative,” says Shane.
6. People die from HIV/AIDS.
Okay, for one: You don’t die from HIV or AIDS, period. Those who are affected by the illness could potentially die from its associated diseases (pneumonia, meningitis, Kaposi’s sarcoma, etc.) because their immune systems are weak, says Dr. Bartos. “HIV destroys the CD4 T lymphocytes of the immune system, leaving the body vulnerable to life-threatening infections and cancers,” says Dr. Bartos.
Freddie Mercury, for instance, died from pneumonia, which was AIDS-triggered and caused by HIV; But it wasn’t AIDS iself that ended his life. Thanks to medication and more research, many people with HIV live as long of a life as those without HIV, adds Shane.
7. You shouldn’t get pregnant if you have HIV.
Fake news. “You can get pregnant and have a baby while you have HIV. In fact, with medicine, the transmission rate to a newborn is less than 2 percent. HOWEVER, you shouldn’t breastfeed with HIV,” says Dr. Bartos.
8. Someone with HIV or AIDS is dirty.
FWIW: HIV is not a “dirty person” disease. “A person with HIV or AIDS is no different than someone with diabetes or high cholesterol,” says Shane. “These are all medical conditions that can be easily treated with proper medical intervention and ongoing care. The idea that a person is dirty furthers stigma and harms society.”
9. No one will ever have sex with you if you’re HIV positive.
“Being positive means nothing more than the fact that you need to be mindful of your health and follow medical advice. It says nothing about what kind of person you are, what your value is to others, or how much love you deserve or will have in your life,” says Shane.
10. If you contract HIV or AIDS, those in your life will stop loving you.
“Having HIV may change your medical health and the frequency in which you see your doctor, but it doesn’t change who you are or why you matter. People who love you will still love you because you are no less worthy than you were before testing positive,” says Shane.
And remember: Just because December is AIDS Awareness Month, it doesn’t mean we should stop having these conversations all year long. It’s always a good time to talk about the misconceptions and end the stigma for good.