The myths about HIV and AIDS grow each year – making the fight against the virus even harder.
So here is the annual GSN myth buster, with help from our friends at National AIDS Trust.
It’s dedicated to breaking down the prejudices and rumors and giving you some surprises, however much you think you know about the virus.
Myth: Lesbians can’t get HIV from each other.
Busted: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US reported this year that female-to-female transmission of HIV is possible. However the risk is extremely small. Read about one of the rare examples here.
Risk factors include exposure to vaginal or other body fluids, blood from menstruation, or blood from damage sustained during rougher sex.
However, it is far less common than male-to-male transmission.
Myth: Having gay bareback sex with someone who you know is HIV positive is the most dangerous thing you can do.
Busted: You should obviously use protection with a positive partner.
But if someone knows they are HIV positive, they will often be taking treatment. And the drugs means their infectiousness drops by 96% making them far less likely to pass the virus on.
You are far, far more at risk if you have unsafe sex with someone who doesn’t know their HIV status and so is not on treatment.
They may think they are negative. But if they have just got the virus, perhaps after their last negative test a few weeks ago, they are at their most infectious.
Myth: There is no HIV risk from pre-cum.
Busted: There is a small amount of HIV in a man’s pre-cum, though less than in semen.
Because it is harder to transmit HIV through oral sex getting pre-cum getting in your mouth during oral sex is not something to worry about.
However because it is easier to transmit HIV through vaginal and anal sex, there is a risk. There are cases when someone has got HIV because they delayed putting on a condom during anal sex.
Myth: More straight people than gay men get HIV, so they are at more risk.
Busted: Globally, more straights contract HIV each year. But there are far fewer gay and bi men than straight people. Gay men are simply a high-risk group.
In Australia, 85% of new HIV infections are among men who have sex with men. In California, about three quarters of the HIV cases a year are among gay men. And in London, one in eight gay men is now HIV positive.
Myth: Making everyone wear a condom is the only way to prevent HIV.
Busted: If it was possible to get every person to wear a condom during every sexual act HIV rates would plummet.
However that hasn’t happened in the 30 years since we discovered HIV so it may not happen now.
There are other ways.
If someone is HIV positive and on treatment, their viral load can fall so far they cannot pass on HIV. That protects others.
PrEP, HIV medication taken by someone who is HIV negative to stop them getting it, has been proved to be extremely effective too – both as a daily pill and as a pill taken just before sex. It is already available in America but is on trial elsewhere.
Myth: You can get HIV from a needle you step on or blood you find in the street.
Busted: Injection drug users who share needles tend to pass them between each other quickly and that is high risk, hence this fear. But HIV is an extremely fragile virus and only lasts a matter of seconds outside the body.
Myth: As long as I only top I’ll be ok.
Busted: ‘Bottoms’ are seven-times more likely to get HIV than ‘tops’ in gay sex. But any unprotected anal sex carries a risk of HIV transmission and being a top is not ‘safe’.
Myth: If you get HIV you will eventually get AIDS.
Busted: If you are diagnosed in good time and start medication when you need to, it is extremely unlikely you will develop AIDS.
Even if you do get AIDS, you can often get treatment to go back to just having HIV.
Those with HIV on treatment can expect normal or near-normal life expectancy.
Myth: HIV positive parents can’t have babies safely.
Busted: Talk to your doctor. There are ways for an HIV positive person to have an HIV negative baby. In the UK, they’ve reduced the chance of a positive mom passing on the virus to 0.5%. But seek advice.
Myth: I’ve had unprotected sex with the guy and not caught it, so he’s safe.
Busted: You could contract HIV the first time you have unprotected sex or you could have sex without condoms 100 times and get away with it. The risks vary.
Plus, you don’t know if the guy you are sleeping with has been having bareback sex with others in the meantime. If so, they could be newly infected and at the highest chance of passing the virus on.
Myth: Some people are just immune.
Busted: This is true. But immunity is incredibly rare.
In Caucasians, one in a thousand people at most are immune. It may be far fewer.
Some have speculated that historic European plagues provided this bit of genetic code and other races show even less immunity.
Some of the prostitutes who weren’t getting the virus, also appear to have ‘lost’ their immunity.
Myth: HIV and AIDS are the same thing.
Busted: HIV is Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The virus will cause AIDS, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, if you don’t realize you are HIV positive and take treatment. This condition is when your immune system is destroyed, allowing other infections and cancers to kill you.
So AIDS has symptoms but you can have HIV and not know it. That’s why you need to test regularly.
Myth: You can tell when someone is HIV positive.
Busted: The virus itself doesn’t make you look any different. And the drugs can stop you getting AIDS which is what makes you sick and look sick.
Many gay and bi guys respond to learning they are positive by taking more care of their health, going to the gym and getting fit.
But, HIV drugs can sometimes cause side-effects like lipodystrophy – loss of fat in some areas, like sunken cheeks, and excess fat elsewhere, sometimes causing ‘buffalo humps’ on the neck.
Myth: HIV positive people are treated just like everyone else.
Busted: Often they are – but not always, sadly.
One in three people living with HIV in the UK still report they have encountered discrimination. In the US, research has shown stigma and shame are the biggest barriers to people starting treatment after being diagnosed as HIV positive.
Myth: By the time it matters to me, there will be a cure for AIDS.
Busted: Scientists are always the media saying they are close to a cure to boost their reputation and get more research money. They are doing amazing work. But HIV is a tricky virus and scientists have failed to ‘cure’ cancer, mumps or the common cold.
So far they haven’t delivered and there is no guarantee they will in your lifetime.
Plus, being HIV positive can increase your risk of getting other, life-threatening health problems like Hepatitis C, so it could matter before you know it.
Gay Star News would like to thank the National AIDS Trust (NAT) for their expertise in helping us prepare this article for World AIDS Day (1 December).