There is a big cloud of misinformation surrounding AIDS, often because of media’s inaccurate depictions of the syndrome or because our high school sex education class told us it was a death sentence that only “dirty” people get. This lack of awareness means that not many people understand what the illness really is and what it’s like to live with it, while others are haunted by stigmatizing thought patterns that developed during the 1980s AIDS epidemic.
So, in honor of AIDS Awareness Month, let’s clear the air. Here are 6 myths that you may have believed about AIDS — and why they’re not true. (And if you’re confused about why we’re only saying AIDS — not HIV or HIV/AIDS — read on to myth #1.)
Myth #1: AIDS and HIV are two different viruses.
This can be confusing to many people. Because we commonly refer to HIV and AIDS as HIV/AIDS, some people think that the terms are interchangeable. Others think they’re entirely different infections. Both are wrong.
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system. It has three stages. Stage 1 is acute infection, which happens within 2-4 weeks of transmission — it may come with flu-like symptoms, but sometimes people might not experience symptoms at all.
Stage 2 is called chronic infection or the stage of clinical latency. Basically, this is the stage that most HIV-positive people live in throughout their lives. If you’re taking antiretroviral treatment (ART), you may live in this stage for decades. People not taking ART may be in this phase for around 10 years.
Stage 3 is when a series of symptoms, together known as AIDS — acquired immunodeficiency syndrome — present themselves. These symptoms include your CD4 count (or infection-fighting white blood cell count) being below 200, which weakens your immune system, increasing the chances of developing opportunistic infections.
So, to put it simply — AIDS is a syndrome caused by HIV, which is the actual virus. They aren’t two separate viruses. AIDS simply describes an advanced stage of the virus that comes with a series of immune system-related symptoms.
Myth #2: If you have AIDS, you won’t have meaningful relationships.
People living with AIDS have a chronic health condition that weakens their immune system, but it doesn’t weaken their ability to have relationships (sexual or otherwise). The real culprit here is stigma — outdated beliefs about AIDS may influence people’s perceptions of people living with the syndrome.
Myths like “you can’t hug someone who has HIV or AIDS” (or myths like the third one on this list) prevent people from wanting to make meaningful connections with someone who has AIDS. That fault lies with the HIV-negative person, not with the person who has AIDS themselves.
Myth #3: AIDS is a death sentence.
AIDS indicates that your immune system is weak, which means you might be more susceptible to opportunistic infections. But medical advancements in antiretroviral treatment (ART) mean that it’s possible to live for years with an AIDS diagnosis.
Just like with other illnesses that weaken the immune system, people living with AIDS should be mindful of being around sick people in order to protect their own immune systems.
Myth #4: You can’t be healthy if you have AIDS.
AIDS is just one component of someone’s health. By managing stress, eating well, and continuing doctor-recommended treatment, people can maintain their CD4 count, helping them prevent complications so that they ultimately live otherwise healthy lives.
Myth #5: It’s your own fault if you develop AIDS.
Nope. There are many reasons why someone’s HIV might progress to stage 3 (AIDS), but the reason is commonly that someone didn’t know they had HIV so they never got treated for it. AIDS develops when the immune system continues to weaken beyond a certain point, and the myth that it’s someone’s fault is just another way of blaming people for something that is happening to their body; it’s rooted in shame and stigma, not reality.
Myth #6: AIDS is an illness that only affects gay people.
Anybody of any gender, sexuality, race, or social class can get HIV and later develop AIDS. End of story.
Okay, not quite end of story. HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS, can be transmitted by 5 bodily fluids: blood, breast milk, semen, vaginal fluids and rectal fluids. But HIV can’t be transmitted simply by touching those things — a person must come in contact with a mucous membrane (like the anus, vagina, or mouth), have a cut in their skin, or have the virus directly injected into their bloodstream.
The myth that HIV and AIDS are illnesses that only affect gay men came about because of the “gay cancer” panic in the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic began. HIV had started affecting, and eventually killing, communities of gay men because nobody knew what the virus was or how it was transmitted — so nobody knew steps for prevention or treatment. In fact, medical researchers originally referred to AIDS as GRID, or gay-related immune deficiency, and homophobia directly resulted in stigmatization of the illness and a lack of urgency in researching a cure. Even today, homophobic ideology continues to inform our understanding of HIV/AIDS: For example, gay men are federally banned from donating blood if they don’t abstain from sex with men for 12 months, and homophobia is still considered a barrier in diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and research.
Moreover, anal sex is considered the highest-risk sexual behavior that can transmit HIV. That’s because the anus and rectum are very sensitive and those tissues are very susceptible to tears. This means the mucous membranes are at a higher risk of tearing during anal play, making the risk of transmission from a positive partner to a negative partner higher — but that’s something that would affect anyone engaging in anal play, not just gay men. And, as aforementioned, anal sex is not the only way that HIV is transmitted.
When our knowledge of HIV/AIDS is fear-based and inaccurate, we can’t take steps to stay healthy. This AIDS Awareness Month, take responsibility for yourself and those around you by seeking out correct information about AIDS, unlearning harmful myths, sharing that knowledge with your peers, and, of course, getting tested for HIV. Check out HIVcare.org for more information on where and how to get an HIV test, and visit the AIDS Healthcare Foundation for more information about living with AIDS.