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Debunking myths about HIV
by Narrative. August 1st 2013, 09:58 AM

Debunking myths about HIV
By Traci (Coexist.)

Most people have heard of HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus. Unfortunately, along with the facts about HIV, many people also hear rumors and misconceptions, causing stigma and shame to HIV-positive individuals and their loved ones. It is estimated that over 34 million people worldwide have the virus; without the proper information, it's difficult to prevent or treat HIV, and these numbers only continue to rise. From the root of HIV, to its contraction, spread, and treatment, it is important to know the facts and educate others.

Myth: HIV came from humans having sexual relations with monkeys in Africa.
Fact: There is no exact documentation of the first case of HIV, but there are many theories. It is a fact that HIV came from Africa, and it came from other primates. However, this was not caused by having sex with these primates; rather, scientists believe that the virus jumped species from primate bushmeat, or wild animal meat. They believe that contact with the blood of bushmeat may have spread the virus.

Myth: HIV and AIDS are the same thing.
Fact: Although HIV and AIDS are related, there are important differences between the two. AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, and it is a disease that is caused by the virus HIV. HIV infects vital cells of the immune system, particularly the T-Helper cells (which control and direct much of the immune system) and the macrophages (which help initiate defense mechanisms in the immune system). As these cells are attacked, it becomes harder for the body to fight off infections. When there are too few of the healthy cells, or somebody has developed another infection, the person can then be diagnosed with AIDS. AIDS develops after years of a person having untreated HIV.

Myth: People die from AIDS, not HIV.
Fact: It is a common misconception, even of those educated in HIV, that one contracts HIV and dies of AIDS. Although AIDS is the disease caused by HIV, the disease itself is not what kills people. As stated in the previous myth, AIDS is diagnosed when somebody has too few healthy cells in the immune system, or has another infection. These other infections are called "opportunistic infections." Opportunistic infections are usually rare among those with healthy immune systems, and attack people with suppressed immune systems, such as those who are HIV-positive, pregnant, or malnourished. An example of an opportunistic infection is Kaposiís sarcoma, a type of skin cancer which is rare among those with healthy immune systems. These opportunistic infections are what can kill those who are HIV-positive.

Myth: One can contract HIV by kissing, being sneezed on, touching, or even breathing the same air as somebody who is HIV-positive.
Fact: Although HIV is spread by the exchange of fluids with somebody who is HIV-positive, this does not include every fluid. One can be exposed to the saliva (from kissing) or sweat (from touching) from somebody who is HIV-positive and be perfectly fine. The fluids that can spread HIV include blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk. Because of this, it is best to avoid activities that spread these fluids. For blood, this can include taking intravenous drugs with the same needle as somebody who is HIV-positive, or accepting a donation of blood with somebody who is HIV-positive. To prevent semen or vaginal fluid contraction, it is best to avoid sexual relations with somebody who is HIV-positive, or to make sure that one is protected using a barrier, such as a condom or dental dam. Keep in mind that hormonal methods, such as the pill or the shot, do not protect against HIV. Last, for breast milk, it is recommended that those who are HIV-positive do not breastfeed their children, but use formulas instead. There is no reason to worry about being around an HIV-positive individual because one cannot contract HIV from most interactions.

Myth: Someone who is heterosexual and doesnít use intravenous drugs has no risk of becoming HIV-positive.
Fact: When the HIV outbreak first began, it was very prevalent in the men having sex with men (MSM) and the drug-using community. Because of this, there is a misconception that HIV is only found in these groups of people. HIV does not discriminate; it is found across races, sexualities and genders. Particular groups have been hit harder than others and some actions, such as using intravenous drugs, have a higher risk of contracting HIV; therefore, individuals doing these actions are put at higher risk, but anybody can contract HIV.

Myth: Contracting HIV is a death sentence.
Fact: Fortunately, HIV research and treatment have come a long way and one can live HIV-positive for decades. HIV is treated with antiviral drugs, which help to lower the amount of virus in the blood along with making it harder to spread to others. Without treatment, HIV-positive individuals typically live ten years before they are diagnosed with AIDS and are at risk for opportunistic infections, which usually happen within a year or two after an AIDS diagnosis. However, as with many other conditions, such as diabetes, HIV can be managed, and if under control, HIV-positive individuals can live a healthy and happy life.

There is still not a vaccine for HIV, although researchers are in the process of developing one, but it is important to get tested for HIV on a regular basis. If one is sexually active with multiple partners, they should get tested by a physician or at a clinic's office after each partner, or if monogamous, every six months. Testing costs can vary, depending on where one lives; some clinics offer it for free, or some countries have continuous free testing. As it is important to prevent contracting HIV, it is just as important to prevent HIV myths. These misconceptions allow the virus to continue affecting lives, both by spreading incorrect information about contracting, or harming those who are HIV-positive with shame. There is nothing morally wrong with contracting the flu or common cold and there is also nothing morally wrong with somebody who is HIV-positive. By knowing the truth, one can help prevent the spread of HIV along with the stigmatization of those who are HIV-positive and their communities.
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