Facts and Myths on HIV/AIDS: Prepared by Mia Malan

Myth 1: I can get HIV by being around people who are HIV positive.

The evidence shows that HIV is not spread through touch, tears, sweat, or saliva. You cannot catch HIV by:
  • Breathing the same air as someone who is HIV-positive
  • Touching a toilet seat or door knob handle after an HIV-positive person
  • Drinking from a water fountain
  • Hugging, kissing, or shaking hands with someone who is HIV-positive
  • Sharing eating utensils with an HIV-positive person
  • Using exercise equipment at a gym
*NB: You can get it from infected blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or mother’s milk.

Myth 2: I can get HIV from mosquitoes.

Because HIV is spread through blood, people have worried that biting or bloodsucking insects might spread HIV. Several studies, however, show no evidence to support this – even in areas with lots of mosquitoes and cases of HIV. When insects bite, they do not inject the blood of the person or animal they have last bitten. Also, HIV lives for only a short time inside an insect.

Myth 3: I’m HIV-positive, my life is over.

Your life is not over! Yes, in the early years of the disease epidemic, the death rate from AIDS was extremely high, and one’s lifespan extremely short. But today, antiretroviral drugs allow HIV-positive people and even those with AIDS to live much longer, normal, and productive lives.

Myth 4: HIV is a homosexual disease

Although men who have sex with men are the most at risk population; HIV transmission through heterosexual sexual intercourse is the most common. Up to 80% of HIV transmission occurs through heterosexual sex but HIV is contracted much more easily through anal sex as the anus is prone to cuts and bleeding, which raises the risk of infection. So both men who have sex with men and heterosexuals who have regular anal sex without condoms are particularly vulnerable. In fact, women get HIV much more easily than men. A woman has a one-in-200 chance of contracting HIV from a single sexual heterosexual encounter, but a man has a one-in-700 chance. Biology plays the major role. Semen, which has a high concentration of HIV, is deposited into a woman’s uterus and stays there for at least three days, increasing her chances of infection. Also, the mucous membrane in the area where the penis enters a woman’s body has many CD4 cells, which HIV latches on to, again making her more likely to contract the virus.

Myth 5: If I’m receiving treatment, I can’t spread the HIV virus.

When HIV treatments work well, they can reduce the amount of virus in your blood to a level so low that it doesn’t show up in blood tests. Research shows, however, that the virus is still “hiding” in other areas of the body. It is still essential to practice safe sex so you won’t make someone else become HIV-positive.

Myth 6: My partner and I are both HIV positive – there’s no reason for us to practice safe sex.

You may still be susceptible to contracting drug resistant strains of HIV. Two sexual partners who are both HIV-positive could have different strains of the virus and, if they have unprotected sex, they could infect one another with another strain, leading to their immune systems being attacked by two different forms of the virus. This could further weaken their immune systems and might require a change to their treatment as different HIV strains require different drugs. Practicing safe sex, wearing condoms or using dental dams, can protect you both from becoming exposed to other (potentially drug resistant) strains of HIV.

Myth 7: I could tell if my partner was HIV-positive.

You can be HIV-positive and not have any symptoms for years. The only way for you or your partner to know if you’re HIV-positive is to get tested.

Myth 8: Male circumcision prevents HIV.

Male circumcision does not prevent HIV infection; it only decreases the likelihood of infection. Several studies have shown that male circumcision reduces a man’s risk by up to 60%. These findings have led the government to embark on a campaign to provide free male circumcision services. When a man has sex, the penis gets micro cuts from friction, which is generally how HIV enters a male’s body. The foreskin has millions of CD4 receptors, the type of white blood cells that HIV latches on to.

Myth 9: Traditional medicines can cure HIV.

The role of traditional healers has been controversial. This is largely due to the South African government’s promotion of traditional medicine as an alternative to ARVs, up until 2008. This included punting the untested claims and ‘cures’ of people. Traditional medicines have not been empirically proven to cure HIV, there may be herbs that reduce symptoms of HIV opportunistic infections, however to date there is no cure for HIV.

Myth 10: I can be cured from HIV if I have sex with a virgin.

Sex with a virgin does not cure HIV. Sexual intercourse whether with a virgin or non-virgin is the primary manner in which HIV is spread. It will only pass the virus to the virgin who may/may not be HIV negative.

Myth 11: I can’t get HIV from oral sex.

It’s true that oral sex is less risky than some other types of sex. But you can get HIV by having oral sex with either a man or a woman who is HIV-positive. Always use a latex barrier during oral sex.

Myth 12: ARVs disfigure you.

Today this rarely happens. In the past, some ARVs displaced fat in people’s bodies. One such drug, D4T, also known as Stavudine, was on the South African list for HIV treatment until early last year. It is a cheap drug that works efficiently but has many side effects, such as the loss of fat in the legs, arms and face, resulting in people’s bodies looking “unbalanced”. The state replaced it with a drug with fewer side effects, TDF. Others, such as AZT, have also been linked to displacing fat in the body. Some drugs cause fat to show up in the stomach, the back of the neck or the breasts in both men and women. But this almost never happens today as doctors are better equipped to monitor the drug’s side effects and have a range of replacement drugs to choose from. In extraordinary circumstances of fat displacement, the government offers free liposuction or breast removal surgery.

Myth 13: If me or my partner were HIV positive, we could not have children.

HIV infected women are fertile and can have children. If mothers and their babies use the correct medication, it’s possible for HIV-positive women to have HIV-negative babies. Without using drugs, there is a 30% chance that HIV-infected women will pass the virus onto their babies in the womb, during birth or by breastfeeding. But if the mother and baby, or even just one of them, use short courses of ARVs, mostly nevirapine and AZT, transmission rates are reduced significantly. This treatment is available for free at government clinics and hospitals. At the time of publication, Mia Malan worked for the Discovery Centre for Health Journalism at Rhodes University.