The myths around HIV and AIDS pose a huge danger to our health – and they spread as fast as the virus itself.
Chances are you will find some surprises in what follows:
Myth: I’m monogamous, so I’m not in danger.
Busted: This may cause a row with your boyfriend. But some research suggests more gay men get HIV from their regular partner than from a hook-up.
Myth: You can only protect yourself from getting HIV by wearing a condom.
Busted: This was true until relatively recently. Back then, your options were abstinence or wearing a condom.
Now you may be able to get the alternative – PrEP. But, depending where you are in the world, PrEP may be free or expensive.
PrEP means ‘pre-exposure prophylaxis’ – that’s doctor-talk for ‘treatment taken before exposure to the virus’.
PrEP kills the virus before it can spread and take hold in your body, so you don’t become HIV positive.
You can take PrEP regularly for on-going protection (that’s best). Alternatively you can get one-off protection – you take two pills between two and 24 hours before sex, one 24 hours later and one 48 hours later. The main drug used is called Truvada.
PrEP is very effective. But it doesn’t protect you from other sex infections, which can be painful, difficult to treat and force you to stop having sex for a while.
Condoms remain the most readily available and best option.
Myth: By paying for PrEP, health officials would be taking money from other patients – like kids with cancer.
Busted: This is a tabloid newspaper lie.
UK newspapers in particular spread this, using inflammatory homophobic language, when the National Health Service was asked to consider paying for PrEP.
If you get HIV, it will cost around $125,000 to $435,000 (€115,000 to €410,000) to treat you for the rest of your life.
If health officials give you PrEP, they not only protect you but the other people you have sex with. If you don’t get the virus, you can’t pass it on.
So in as little as a year, PrEP is expected to start saving money for public health systems. And that’s not to mention the reduction in human misery and the overall improvement in the nation’s health.
Myth: There’s a ‘morning-after pill’ for HIV.
Busted: This is another drug option – Post Exposure Prophylaxis or PEP. It’s a drug regimen started immediately after risky sex.
But it’s not as simple as a ‘morning after pill’.
Firstly, you have to get PEP very quickly after having risky sex. The sooner you start treatment, the more likely it is to work. After 72 hours, it’s too late.
You then need a month worth of treatment. Luckily, the side-effects are smaller than they used to be.
If you need PEP, don’t wait 24 hours like most people do while you think about it. Search online for your nearest emergency clinic and ask for help immediately.
Myth: Bareback sex is hotter.
Busted: This one is a judgment call. Ask yourself what matters more – who you are with and what you are doing, or the fact you are wearing a condom.
Myth: Lesbians can’t give each other HIV.
Busted: Women can give transmit HIV to each other. However the risk level is very low.
Risk factors include exposure to vaginal or other body fluids, blood from menstruation, or blood from damage sustained during rougher sex. Read about one of the rare examples here.
Myth: As long as I only top, I’ll be ok.
Busted: ‘Bottoms’ are seven-times more likely to get HIV than ‘tops’ in gay sex. But any unprotected anal sex carries a risk of HIV transmission and being a top is not ‘safe’.
Myth: Having gay bareback sex with an HIV positive guy is the most dangerous thing you can do.
Busted: You should obviously use protection with a positive partner.
If someone is HIV positive but doesn’t know their viral load and is not on treatment, they are high-risk for passing the virus on.
But if they are taking HIV drugs, they may be ‘undetectable’. That means the virus is still in their body but can’t be detected by tests. At that level it is highly unlikely they can pass the virus on.
Myth: If I don’t test for HIV, the only person I’m hurting is myself.
Busted: You are most likely to pass on HIV if you have the virus but don’t know it yet.
You may think you are negative. But if you’ve just got the virus, you are at your most infectious.
If everyone tested regularly and got on treatment if they were positive, the infection rate would plummet.
Testing is important for you too. The sooner you start treatment the better your long-term health will be.
But by not testing, you risk hurting your sexual partners – people you presumably like at least, if not actually love.
Psyching yourself up for a test may be hard, particularly if you are nervous because you’ve had unsafe sex. But it’s a quick prick on the finger and then you’re done.
Best case, you’re negative. Worst case, you get help and can live as long and as fully as anyone else. Testing is a win-win.
Myth: There is no HIV risk from pre-cum.
Busted: There is a small amount of HIV in a man’s pre-cum, though less than in semen.
Getting pre-cum getting in your mouth during oral sex is not something to worry about. It is harder to transmit HIV through oral sex anyway.
But you can transmit HIV through your pre-cum during vaginal or anal sex. Some people have got HIV just because their partner delayed putting on a condom during anal sex.
Myth: More straight people than gay men get HIV, so they are at more risk.
Busted: Globally, more straights contract HIV each year.
But there are fewer gays than straights. And a higher proportion of our community already have HIV. So gay and bi men are simply a higher-risk group.
In Australia, 85% of new HIV infections are among men who have sex with men. In California, about three quarters of the HIV cases a year are among gay men. And in London, one in eight gay men is now HIV positive.
Myth: You can get HIV from a pool of blood you find in the street.
Busted: HIV is an extremely fragile virus and only lasts a matter of seconds outside the body.
But here’s one important exception: Injection drug users who share needles tend to pass them between each other quickly and that is high risk.
Myth: If you get HIV you will eventually get AIDS.
Busted: If you are diagnosed in good time and start medication when you need to, it is extremely unlikely you will develop AIDS.
Even if you do get AIDS, you can often get treatment to go back to just having HIV. HIV positive people on treatment now enjoy normal or near-normal life expectancy.
Myth: HIV positive parents can’t have babies safely.
Busted: If you are HIV positive and want to have a baby, ask your doctor.
Scientists have found ways for an HIV positive person to have an HIV negative baby. In the UK, they’ve reduced the chance of a positive mom passing on the virus to 0.5%.
Myth: I bareback with a guy and am still negative, so he’s safe.
Busted: You could contract HIV the first time you have unprotected sex or the 100th time. You never know.
Plus if he’s barebacking you, he may be having unsafe sex with other people too, so he could become positive at any time.
If he does, he may well pass it on to you as the newly infected are the most likely to transmit HIV to their partners.
Myth: I think I’m immune.
Busted: Immunity is incredibly rare. For example, one in a thousand Caucasians at most may be immune – or it may be far less.
Some have speculated that historic European plagues provided this bit of genetic code and other races show even less immunity.
Some of the prostitutes who apparently had ‘immunity’ – sparking this idea – have now ‘lost’ it.
Myth: HIV and AIDS are the same thing.
Busted: A study of HIV positive people in the UK revealed this is the most common myth of all.
HIV is Human Immunodeficiency Virus. You can have HIV for a long time and not realize.
Untreated, the virus will cause AIDS, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. This is when your immune system is destroyed, allowing other infections and cancers to kill you.
Myth: He looks healthy so he can’t be positive.
Busted: The virus itself doesn’t make you look any different.
HIV drugs can sometimes cause side-effects like lipodystrophy – loss of fat in some areas, like sunken cheeks, and excess fat elsewhere, sometimes causing ‘buffalo humps’ on the neck.
These side-effects are less common now.
Even experts can’t tell if someone is HIV positive by simply looking at them. So what chance do you have?
Myth: There’s no down side to being HIV positive.
Busted: Sadly that’s not the case. You may well face stigma and discrimination.
One in three people living with HIV in the UK have encountered discrimination because of it.
In the US stigma and shame are the biggest barriers to people starting treatment after being diagnosed as HIV positive.
Plus, being HIV positive can increase your risk of getting other, life-threatening, health problems like Hepatitis C.
Myth: Scientists will have cured AIDS by the time it can hurt me.
Busted: We wish. But nobody knows.
Scientists have done some amazing work. But testing a drug and making it publicly available takes years and even the most promising potentials often come to nothing.
HIV is a tricky virus and scientists have failed to ‘cure’ cancer, mumps or the common cold. There is no guarantee they will cure AIDS in your lifetime.
Researchers love to place stories in the media, promising a cure is near. They boost their academic reputation and get the research grants rolling in. That’s fine – without reputation building and cash, they’ll never find a cure. But we shouldn’t fall for it.