July is HIV awareness month, and in addition to the ways it affects people’s lives physically, it’s important to understand and work to dismantle the social stigma surrounding the disease. HIV diagnosis unfortunately carries with it decades of harmful misinformation and stigma, and it’s essential to dismantle these myths in order to encourage people to get tested and pursue safer, more effective screening and treatment practices.
Myth: HIV only affects gay men and drug users
Fact: HIV can actually affect anyone, of any age, nationality, or gender. Did you know that of the worldwide HIV cases, over half of the affected are women? While different groups of people are at a higher risk for contracting HIV, the notion that it only afflicts homosexual men or intravenous drug users contributes to the dangerous stigma that people who contract HIV are somehow deserving because of their choices. This is a prejudice that comes from labelling certain groups as socially unacceptable.
In fact, newborn babies can even contract HIV from their HIV Positive mothers during birth 25% of the time. Or, without treatment HIV can be spread through breast milk.
Myth: HIV is a death Sentence
Fact: In the early 70’s-80’s when the initial HIV/AIDS cases were being recorded, treatment was largely nonexistent. Furthermore, because of the widespread panic and confusion surrounding the disease and its rapid spread, people actively discriminated against those with HIV. People were refused medical treatment, evicted from their homes, and barred from attending schools. These factors greatly contributed to faster disease progression and deaths.
Now, the treatment methods for HIV involve a combination antiretroviral therapy which is effective in slowing the spread and progression of the disease. Many HIV positive people now live long and well, and treatment options are still being improved with ongoing research.
Myth: HIV can be spread through casual contact
Fact: HIV is only spread through blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or breast milk. HIV is not airborne, and cannot be spread through sweat, saliva, or simple touch. These ideas again come from the initial prejudice against HIV positive people, and the fear and discrimination they faced in almost every setting. You cannot get HIV from someone who is positive through casual contact, sharing a drink, or even kissing (unless there are active sores or open wounds present in the mouth.)
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