On HIV/AIDS and Their Misconceptions
A little over a year ago, I became involved at AIDS Community Care Montreal, an awesome non-profit HIV/AIDS community organization. Since then I’ve become more aware of the misconceptions many people have regarding HIV through the questions I’m often asked about my work environment.
“Aren’t you afraid of catching HIV?” “Do you use the same bathrooms?” “Is it hard to work with people who are dying?” These questions point to the fact that as a society and generation, we’re incredibly misinformed about HIV and AIDS.
What we think we know is often loaded with stigma and myths, and these often act as unnecessary barriers to accessing proper support and prevention. So this week I’ve decided to share five things I wish everyone knew about HIV.
1. HIV and AIDS are not the same thing. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, a virus that attacks a type of white blood cell known as CD4 T cells, which are part of the immune system and are responsible for initiating the body’s response to infections.
HIV progressively weakens the immune system, making the body more susceptible to opportunistic infections, such as pneumonia. AIDS, on the other hand, is an acronym for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome and refers to having an opportunistic infection and/or a white blood cell count below a critical level due to an HIV infection.
People don’t die of AIDS, but from infections that take advantage of the weakened immune system of someone with AIDS. HIV can progress to AIDS but, depending on treatment, someone with HIV won’t necessarily develop AIDS.
2. HIV is not a death sentence and people living with it aren’t dying. As mentioned above, someone living with HIV won’t necessarily develop AIDS and, while HIV results in a weakened immune system, it itself is not a cause of death. Life doesn’t end with an HIV infection; many people still live long, healthy lives thanks to treatments now available.
3. HIV is treatable, not curable. There’s a scary trend among Canadian youth of thinking that everything, including HIV, is curable with a pill. HIV is not curable at present!
However, it is treatable with various medications called anti-retroviral drugs. Many of these medications have side effects that require other medications to treat, and it can take time to find the right combination of medications, and at no point will the need for those medications go away. This doesn’t mean HIV is unmanageable by any means, but it does require some drastic lifestyle changes and commitment. Like any other chronic illness, such as diabetes, an HIV diagnosis will require closer monitoring and awareness of your health.
4. You can’t catch HIV from a toilet seat, from shaking hands or sharing a workspace. HIV is a virus that can be transmitted through five bodily fluids: blood, semen (including pre-cum), vaginal fluid, anal fluid and breast milk, all of which must originate from an HIV-positive person.
For transmission to occur, one of these fluids must make contact with an entry point, like a cut or sore, and enter the body. HIV cannot be transmitted by saliva or skin contact.
Risk of transmission also depends on a person’s viral load, which is the detectable amount of the virus in their blood. With anti-retrovirals, many people’s viral loads are very low, even undetectable, which lowers the risk of transmission even in these situations.
5. The stigma of HIV can be just as dangerous as the virus itself. Unfortunately, managing the HIV virus is not the only challenge faced by people living with HIV. Stigma from others with limited understandings of HIV can lead to social isolation and further barriers to seeking and receiving support.
Stigma also prevents people from getting tested and knowing their status. It perpetuates the idea that HIV only infects a specific kind of person that engages in a specific kind of sex, but HIV doesn’t discriminate, people do.
If you’re interested in learning more about HIV and AIDS you can check out the Concordia HIV/AIDS Project at aids.concordia.ca and ACCM at accmontreal.org.
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