HIV has become completely manageable, but it is surprising how many people still believe some of the misconceptions about the condition.
The theme of 2018 is “Know your status”, which emphasises the importance of getting tested.
Here are a couple of misconceptions that need to be cleared up. Some are harsh and ignorant untruths while others are just absolute myths.
1. Only 'high-risk people such as homosexuals and promiscuous people' should be tested for HIV.
First, what defines “high risk”? Being with one long-term partner does not mean that you will never contract HIV.
“HIV can happen to anyone. It’s not a disease of the promiscuous. Think about survivors of rape or someone born with HIV,” says Barbara Kingsley, an HIV activist who was diagnosed in 2000.
And regardless of that, no-one should be shamed for their sexual choices and lifestyle.
It’s important to know your status as symptoms may not manifest for years and people can be completely unaware that they have HIV. The earlier you know your status, the earlier you can start taking antiretrovirals (ARVs) to combat the virus and take control of your status. You will also need to know your status to reduce the risk of infecting other possible sexual partners.
Regular testing will also help you raise awareness and break the stigma surrounding HIV/Aids by improving the negative attitudes and perceptions in your own family and circle of friends, even if you are with a long-term partner or not having sex at all.
2. You will get very sick and die if you are HIV positive.
Yes, HIV can lead to Aids. Yes, Aids can be fatal. Does this mean that you are immediately doomed as soon as you are tested positive? Certainly not. Nowadays, HIV is well controlled through ARVs, and many HIV positive people live completely healthy, happy lives.
It may take years for the immune system to deteriorate to such an extent that someone living with HIV becomes ill and is diagnosed with Aids.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), HIV will progress to Aids if not treated with ARVs. This will usually happen after about 10 to 15 years, and before it happens, people with HIV may look and feel perfectly well and can continue life to the fullest.
HIV is no longer a death sentence and the sooner you are tested, the sooner you can start the proper treatment.
3. 'I will never contract HIV/Aids. It’s a disease that only poor people get.'
This statement is so harsh that you cannot imagine anyone saying it out loud. The truth is, HIV is blind to colour or economic status.
According to a paper published in the journal AIDS, stigma surrounding HIV/Aids is a big factor in the limitation of proper treatment.
You as an individual might feel helpless in the face of the quest to find a cure for HIV, or to ensure that everyone has access to medicine and medical care. But what you can do is to start changing the views and perceptions of people in your immediate circle, which can have a wider effect on society.
4. 'He/she is very skinny. They must have HIV/Aids.'
Progressive Aids in its end stages can cause weight loss and an impaired immune system. Untreated HIV can lead to Aids. However, there is no way of telling someone’s status by simply looking at them.
Physical signs and symptoms can take years to manifest or may never do so, especially when an HIV positive person is taking ARVs and has a healthy, active lifestyle.
5. It’s impossible to marry/have a sexual relationship if you are HIV positive.
Unprotected sex is the most common way of spreading HIV. But with protection, there is no reason why an HIV positive person can’t have a fulfilling relationship with an HIV negative person.
With proper treatment and management through ARVs, there is a chance that the viral load (the presence of HIV in your blood) may be undetectable. Research has shown that having an undetectable viral load can lead to little to no risk of spreading the virus to other people.
However, Barbara Kingsley says that it remains important always to use protection, no matter what your viral load:
"The goal of ARVs is for the virus to eventually become undetectable. This means that if you have an undetectable viral load for a period of six months or longer you cannot pass the virus on to others. It is very important to understand that this doesn't protect you against pregnancy or any other STD, and that you can still practise irresponsible sex — you should ideally be in a monogamous, long-term relationship. An undetectable state can ONLY be achieved with ARVs, something that has been scientifically proven and internationally accepted. (It, however, doesn’t mean that you can have unprotected sex as you wish.)"
Health24 previously told the story of Quinton Jonck, a South African living with HIV. He said the following:
“My wife is wonderful – I tried to break it off with her early on in our relationship because I believed we had no future. She wanted to hear nothing about that and two years later we got married.
“Five years after we got married we had our first child. He was conceived using a procedure called sperm washing and insemination. When we had the next two children, I was on medication to take my viral load down to zero and we took a chance just at the right time. Now we have three children – two boys and a girl [all HIV negative].
“We are very happy and my wife is still HIV negative after almost 14 years of marriage. Although we only found out about my status after we met, we have always used condoms.
It's important to know your status. You can get tested at any of the following institutions, in both the public and private sectors:
- Pharmacies who offer clinic services
- Community health centres
- Family planning clinics
- STD clinics
- Pathological laboratories
Make sure that these institutions offer HIV/Aids counselling to help you process the result and to answer any further questions.
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