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World AIDS Day: 5 myths people need to unlearn

This World AIDS Day, experts are urging people to forget their misconceptions around the illness and help fight back against stigma.

This World AIDS Day marks 40 years since the first cases of the illness were discovered. Nearly 36 million people around the world have since died after contracting HIV/AIDS.

Politicians including Boris Johnson were seen wearing red ribbons in the House of Commons to commemorate those lost to the illness which devastated the UK’s queer community through the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Scientific innovation around HIV/AIDS has resulted in some of the most groundbreaking advances in modern medicine, meaning people are less likely to catch the HIV virus and those who do can still live long, healthy lives. 

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Around 105,000 people in the UK are estimated to have HIV, with roughly 80 people diagnosed every week. The government responded to World AIDS Day by announcing plans to end new HIV cases in England by 2030 and by becoming the second country in the world to overturn its ban on people with HIV joining the armed forces.

But the illness remains wrought with stigma and misinformation, which can make it more difficult for people to protect themselves or seek treatment. Even those who experience no symptoms with HIV report that the stigma surrounding their condition has a detrimental impact on their mental health.

Here are some things you might be wrong about around HIV/AIDS.

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Myth: There’s no difference between HIV and AIDS

HIV – human immunodeficiency virus – is transmitted between people. It weakens the cells in a person’s immune system.

Different people experience different symptoms of HIV, though it often looks like the flu. Some people will experience no symptoms at all. 

AIDS, however, cannot be caught. Only once someone has HIV can AIDS – acquired immunodeficiency syndrome – then develop. It is an umbrella term for a series of often fatal illnesses and conditions linked to a person’s immune system struggling to fight off infections and disease.

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Myth: An HIV diagnosis is fatal

Thanks to the treatments now available, there is very little difference in life expectancies for people in the UK with HIV and those without. It’s a manageable condition with which people still live active lives, and modern medicine means the development of AIDS can be prevented.

The types of medication available for people living with HIV are evolving too. The first long-acting injectable treatment was approved for use in England just this month, meaning around 13,000 people who are considered “undetectable” – meaning their condition is being managed in a way that makes their HIV viral levels undetectable in their blood – will soon be able to opt for this every two months over daily tablets.

“HIV unfortunately remains a stigmatised condition,” said Debbie Laycock, head of policy at the Terrence Higgins Trust. “Although we’re working hard to tackle the stigma surrounding HIV, this new injectable treatment option could help people in house-shares for example who do not wish to share their HIV status and will no longer have to worry about hiding their medication. 

“Pill fatigue is also an issue for some people living with HIV who struggle with the idea of taking antiretroviral drugs every day.”

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Myth: HIV can be transmitted via saliva

Experts say they still often face misconceptions around how the virus can be passed from person to person. Nearly 50 per cent of people would feel uncomfortable kissing someone with HIV, according to Terrence Higgins Trust research.

It cannot be transmitted via saliva, sweat or urine, it cannot be passed through water, and it is not airborne. And myths around mosquitoes passing HIV to humans overseas are just that – the virus generally cannot survive after leaving the body.

The virus can only be passed via a small number of bodily fluids including blood, semen and breastmilk. This means unprotected sex, injecting drugs with unsterilised needles and infected blood transfusions can allow the virus to be passed on.

Today’s available medical treatment means HIV is rarely ever passed from mother to baby.

Even if someone has HIV, medication can effectively reduce their viral load to undetectable levels, meaning they can’t pass it on.

And PrEP, a tablet taken by people who do not have the virus before and after sex, significantly cuts the risk of contracting HIV. It’s available free of charge from sexual health clinics, though campaigners are pushing for it to be made more widely accessible.

Myth: Only gay men and people with addictions can get HIV/AIDS

While certain activities such as injecting drugs and unprotected sex can increase a person’s risk of contracting HIV, the virus doesn’t discriminate. That it is an illness confined to certain communities is a myth borne out of stigma tracing back to the 1980s epidemic.

And though daily contact such as kissing and sharing utensils cannot result in HIV transmission, something as simple as having an open wound come into contact with certain bodily fluids can mean the virus is passed on.

Myth: HIV/AIDS isn’t a problem anymore

While medical advances mean many people can live normal, healthy lives after contracting HIV, the illness is still a serious threat in less well-off countries.

Testing and treatment are relatively easy to access in the UK, but people on low incomes in nations with fewer resources often struggle to get the life-saving help they need.

Around 680,000 people died with AIDS around the world in 2020.

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