Sexual & General Health
HIV and AIDS
Myths and Misconceptions
HIV does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation � it can infect male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, young or old. It is true that AIDS cases first appeared in significant numbers among the gay community, but it was quickly discovered that HIV infections were not limited to this group. Although the origins of HIV are not fully understood, it is likely that the early prevalence of the virus amongst gay men happened purely by chance.
In the UK HIV does disproportionately affect gay men, with around 80% of all known UK infections contracted through sex between men. However, this is not true in other countries, and when HIV infections which have been acquired abroad are factored in heterosexual sex becomes the most common method of transmission.
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is usually transmitted via unprotected sex, sharing needles during drug-taking, or from mother to baby. HIV is present in the blood, seminal or vaginal fluids of infected people, but can only be passed on to another person if such a fluid gets into their bloodstream. HIV antibodies are detectable in an infected person's saliva, but at levels far too low to be infectious. Toilet seats and eating utensils do not pass on the virus.
It is true that African nations have been badly affected by AIDS. This is due to a number of factors, some of which are cultural, and the situation has been worsened by restricted access to condoms and antiretroviral drugs. Even so, HIV and AIDS are still a problem in the UK, and are far from being limited to other countries.
If HIV and AIDS were sent by god to punish gay men, divine intervention of this nature was a very poor move. HIV has infected millions of women, heterosexual men, and children worldwide. It is a shame that AIDS has been used by certain religious factions to attack homosexuality. It deflects from the far broader issues involved, causes great distress, and points to a gross lack of understanding. Whatever a person's faith, they should regard AIDS as an illness like countless others, not as a tool for reinforcing their own beliefs.
HIV does not require a person to be sexually promiscuous in order to infect them. One instance of unprotected sex can transmit the virus. Judgements of a person's sexual behaviour simply because they are HIV+ are damaging and pointless. HIV can also be passed on by sharing needles and from mother to baby, and by receiving infected blood products (prior to the mid 1980s in the UK).
Although there is no cure for HIV, drug therapies introduced in 1996 and treatments for opportunistic infections have greatly improved the health of those living with the virus. These drugs can delay or prevent the development of AIDS, as well as allow for recovery in those with AIDS, meaning that average life expectancies have improved dramatically.
However, antiretroviral therapies are expensive, and campaigning continues for those in developing nations to be given access to these drugs.
HIV+ people can live for years without any noticeable symptoms, and may be completely unaware of the infection themselves. Thanks to new therapies, they can also live healthily for a long time with the virus effectively under control. Just because no one has disclosed their HIV status to you, it doesn�t mean you�ve never met an HIV+ person. You may work alongside people living with HIV or AIDS, socialise with them, know them as casual acquaintances, or at least pass them on the street.
When the nature of AIDS first became clear, unfortunately some people believed, or implied, that there were �innocent� and �guilty� sufferers. Haemophiliacs and children born with HIV were �innocent�, and those who became infected through sex or injecting drugs were �guilty�. This notion is clearly ridiculous, and serves to highlight society's own prejudices.
Blame, and the accompanying guilt it causes, can do nothing but exacerbate the situation. The majority of HIV+ people did nothing "to deserve it" but have unprotected sex with another person. This is not a crime. Blaming someone for becoming infected with the virus only increases the stigma attached to AIDS; and do we blame people for having other illnesses? A smoker with lung cancer or a heavy drinker with liver damage may be blamed by some people, but usually not in the same way. Unfortunately, AIDS often elicits judgements on a person's sexuality, sexual behaviour, or morality. Emphasis should be placed on supporting those with HIV and AIDS; not on judging them.
This may be true, but the reality is that most people will have some sort of emotional response to someone telling them they have HIV or AIDS. This is then reflected in how we treat the person, often involuntarily. How would you feel if it was a colleague, a close friend, or a relative? Society's prejudices have an effect on all of us, consciously and subconsciously, and it often doesn�t help to deny that these influences exist.
The best tools for countering negative reactions are knowledge, self-awareness, and understanding that someone disclosing their HIV status to you takes a great deal of courage and trust on their part.
Although the levels of AIDS-related deaths have plummeted thanks to new drugs, the number of people with HIV and AIDS increases year by year. It is unlikely that HIV will ever "go away" - it has worked its way irrevocably into the human population. The most we can hope for is that an effective vaccine and cure can be found to counter HIV's effects and prevent the development of AIDS.