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HIV: MYTHS and FAQs

There are tons of myths about how you can get HIV. HIV is passed on from person to person if infected body fluids (such as blood, semen, vaginal or anal secretions and breast milk) get into your bloodstream. The five main ways this can happen are:

  1. Unprotected sex
  2. From mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding
  3. Injecting drugs with a needle that has infected blood in it
  4. Infected blood donations or organ transplants
  5. A healthcare worker who gets the blood of an infected patient inside their body.

You cannot get in these ways:

  1. HIV can’t survive outside of the body so you won’t get HIV from touching someone, hugging them or shaking their hand.
  2. By coming in contact with sweat, tears, urine or feces of someone who has HIV
  3. You cannot get HIV from insects. When an insect (such as a mosquito) bites you, it sucks your blood – it does not inject the blood of the last person it bit.

Air:

  1. HIV cannot survive in the air so coughing, sneezing or spitting cannot transmit HIV.
  2. New needles cannot transmit HIV because they haven’t been in the body of an infected person. If used needles are cleaned and sterilised properly they can’t transmit HIV either.
  3. HIV can’t survive in water, so you won’t get HIV from swimming pools, baths, and shower areas or from drinking water.
  4. Toilet seats, tables, door handles, cutlery, sharing towels

HIV doesn’t survive on surfaces, so you can’t get HIV from any of these:

  1. Musical instruments
  2. HIV can’t survive on musical instruments. Even if it is an instrument that you play using your mouth, it can’t give you HIV.

Kissing:

There is such a small amount of HIV in the saliva of an infected person that HIV can’t be passed on from kissing. There is only a risk if you both have large open sores or bleeding gums and blood is exchanged.

Oral sex:

As with kissing, the risk of HIV from oral sex is so small unless you or your partner has large open sores on the genital area or bleeding gums/sores in the mouth. Always use a condom or dental dam to eliminate the risk.

Tattoos and piercings:    

There is only a risk if the needle used by the professional has been used in the body of an HIV-infected person and is not sterilised afterwards.

If I get infected fluid from an HIV-positive person into my body will I get HIV?

No, HIV is not always passed on from an infected person. There are lots of reasons why this is the case. For example, if the HIV-positive person is on treatment, it will reduce the amount of HIV in their body meaning it is unlikely to be passed on. Also, if you get infected blood into your body, you may be able to take post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which stops the virus from becoming an infection. However it’s not available everywhere and has to be taken within 72 hours to be effective. It’s really important to always take a HIV test if you think you have been at risk of HIV.

Isn’t HIV only a risk for certain groups of people?           

Some people think that only certain groups of people can get HIV, they are wrong.

Everyone is at risk of HIV if you get HIV into your bloodstream via one of the ways mentioned above.

Some people have a higher risk of getting HIV because they engage in certain activities (e.g. injecting drugs) that are more likely to transmit the virus, or they have lots of sex partners and don’t use a condom.

I’m HIV-positive and so is my partner so we don’t have to worry about HIV right?

Wrong. There are many strains of the HIV virus. If you get infected with 2 or more strains of HIV it can cause problems for your treatment. Make sure you are still using condoms if you and your partner are living with HIV.

It’s easy to tell the symptoms of HIV:

No. The symptoms of HIV can differ from person-to-person and some people may not get any symptoms at all. Without treatment, the virus will get worse over time and damage your immune system.

Tidbits:

  • There are two strains of HIV: You probably know that HIV originated in monkeys. But did you know that there are actually two types of HIV strains? Labelled as HIV 1 and HIV 2, these two strains have been found in chimpanzees and small African monkeys. HIV 1 is the more potent of the two strains and is what most commonly causes HIV infection.
  • If you pop a pimple on your face with your dirty hands that touched the phone, which has been on public surfaces like desks and chairs, it will not constitute direct access. Because in order for an open sore or wound to provide said access, it needs to be gushing blood and require immediate and professional medical attention.
  • French-Canadian flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas is frequently vilified as the “Typhoid Mary”, or “Patient Zero” of AIDS in America. This is a controversial stance since Dugas was certainly not the first person to be infected with AIDS, or even the first North American. The first known American was a teenager from Missouri, and succumbed in 1969. It is, however, very possible that Dugas’s promiscuity caused the disease to become widespread. A great many of the early cases diagnosed in the United States were eventually directly traced back to Dugas. His career as a flight attendant allowed him to move easily between major cities, and his habit of frequenting gay bathhouses put him in contact with hundreds of other men, who in turn likely entertained several partners. This led to an exponential spread of the disease, which occurred throughout the 1980s. Gaëtan Dugas himself died in 1984 from kidney failure caused by the infection.
  • Biological warfare has been known since ancient times: invaders slinging plague corpses over battlement wall and blankets steeped in smallpox virions, amongst other methods. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that HIV/AIDS is sometimes used as a weapon, but the reality is still chilling. In the South African prison system, the dreaded “Numbers Gang” uses rape by AIDS infected inmates as punishment. The victim is cut to ensure transmission in a horrifying process they call the “slow puncture”.
  • Some Africans believe that HIV can be caused by witchcraft or by angry ancestors.
  • In Tanzania, persons with albinism are raped and killed because of an HIV superstition. Some citizens believe raping an albino girl can cure AIDS. Others murder albinos and use their blood, hair or other body parts for AIDS-curing potions.

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