Let’s bust some myths and fight the stigma around HIV!

Further Reading/Viewing:

Undetectable = Untransmittable
Life expectancy
Rates by demographic

Video Transcript

STIs are a topic that people tend to have a lot of misconceptions about—I even made a video last year addressing some of the most prevalent myths out there. But if there’s one sexually transmitted infection that folks tend to be the most misinformed about, it’s HIV. So today I want to bust some myths and fight the stigma surrounding the human immunodeficiency virus.

Myth #1: HIV and AIDS are the same thing.

This is a misconception that makes a lot of sense because the two are closely related, but there are important distinctions between them.

HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system and thus can render a person more susceptible to other infections and diseases. It’s treated with a combination of medications called antiretroviral therapy that prevents the virus from replicating and lowers the amount of it inside of the body.

AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is the most advanced stage of an HIV infection, when the immune system is severely damaged and the person either has or is very at risk for specific opportunistic infections. The AIDS stage of the virus is typically only reached after years without treatment.

Myth #2: Having sex with an HIV-positive person is inherently dangerous.

At a recent sex educator conference, I met a prominent activist and Los Angeles HIV Commissioner who, himself, is negative for the virus. And he said something that really struck me, which is that, based on what we know about the virus and in the interest of remaining negative, he only has partners that are HIV-positive.

Now, this may sound counterintuitive, but it actually makes sense. Multiple wide-scale studies have definitively shown that if a person with the virus is on treatment and has an undetectable viral load—meaning that the treatment has suppressed the virus to the point where it doesn’t even register on HIV tests anymore—that person cannot transmit HIV to anyone else. It is not possible for them to pass on the virus.

So in some situations it’s actually safer to have sex with someone who has HIV that is being treated than someone who says they’re negative, but who even knows when the last time they got tested was?

Even in situations where a person’s virus is still detectable, there is a lot that can be done to minimize the risk of transmission. PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a medication that, taken daily, can significantly lower a person’s chances of contracting the virus. And, of course, condoms are a great tool for protecting against HIV and many other sexually transmitted infections.

Myth #3: HIV is a death sentence.

Treatment for HIV has improved dramatically in the past few decades, and patients on modern treatments are said to have a near-normal life expectancy (though it should be noted that the subjects of the studies that came to that conclusion were largely white and living in higher income countries in Europe and North America).

We need to continue to work to increase the accessibility of testing and treatment to people of all races, locations, and income levels. But collectively, life expectancy for people with HIV is improving, and many people with the virus are living long, healthy lives.

Myth #4: Cisgender women and heterosexual people are not at risk for HIV.

One of the most prevalent and dangerous myths about HIV is that it’s a “gay disease” and that it’s only a problem for the LGBTQ+ community. This is very incorrect.

In 2015, sex between men and women accounted for nearly a quarter of HIV diagnoses in the United States. Women accounted for 19% of diagnoses in the US, and, of those, 86% were attributed to sex with men.

Anybody can get HIV. Certain factors—having anal sex, having multiple partners, not using condoms—can lead to greater risk, but there is no gender or sexuality group that is unaffected by the virus. That is why it’s important for everyone to know the risks, get tested, and take precautions where you can.

Myth #5: HIV isn’t a problem anymore.

Treatment and prevention have come a long way since the the 1980s, but we are by no means out of the woods yet. It is still a pandemic. The number of new infections every year is still high. And the cost of healthcare, as well as rampant HIV stigma and criminalization, still discourages many people from getting tested, seeking treatment, or disclosing their status.

There is a lot of work left to be done. If you want to learn more about HIV, I’m going to direct you to TheBody.com, Avert.org, and ACT UP (one of the oldest direct action advocacy groups for people with AIDS).

Do you have any other questions about this topic? Leave them down in the comments!

Thanks for watching, and I’ll see you next time!