Separating Myth from Reality
When something comes along that is both mysterious and scary, it's human nature to invent an explanation for it. This has certainly been the case with HIV, which is surrounded by more myths than just about anything else you could think of.
HIV myths and conspiracy theories are not just wrong - they are dangerous! They're harmful because they keep people from getting the care they need to survive. They also complicate HIV prevention efforts.
The Myth: HIV was created by the US government to kill black people.
This is the wildest and most outrageous HIV myth of them all. Unfortunately, it is also widely believed. In one survey in California, 27% of African-Americans reported believing that "HIV/AIDS is a man-made virus that the federal government made to kill black people." Another 23% were unsure.
Where did this idea come from? It originated in 1986, shortly after AIDS was first identified, by a crackpot biologist in East Germany named Jakob Segal. He published a pamphlet called "AIDS: USA Home-Made Evil," in which he claimed that HIV was engineered at a US military laboratory in Fort Detrick in 1977, and tested on prison inmates who volunteered for the experiment in exchange for early release. It has been suggested that this pamphlet was part of a deliberate disinformation campaign on behalf of the Soviet Union.
If so, it was wildly successful! The idea that HIV was created by the US government, "The White Man," the CIA, or "The Developed World" to wipe out the black race has been picked up by many others who have written self-published books on the subject. Many African-Americans believe it because they heard it in church - even the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, former pastor to President Barack Obama, has spread this myth from the pulpit.
One variation on this myth says that the government puts HIV into condoms to infect black people. This is a particularly harmful version of the myth, because it prevents condom use among African-Americans and hamstrings prevention efforts.
The Truth: HIV originated in Africa in the 1930s from the closely-related Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), today found in monkeys and chimpanzees.
The scientific consensus is that people first contracted the virus hunting chimpanzees in southern Cameroon. The first cases were seen in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo - the nearest city - starting in 1930. From there the virus slowly spread all over the world. AIDS wasn't recognized and named until it started occurring in substantial numbers in parts of the world with organized health-care systems.
The Myth: There is a cure for AIDS. Just look at Magic Johnson!
This is actually one of the easiest of the myths to understand. Magic held a press conference on November 7, 1991, to announce his retirement from the Lakers due to HIV. Since then he has continued to be in the public eye, and he is the picture of good health. That's must mean he is cured, right? Even Magic's wife, Cookie, has been quoted in the press saying that Magic has been "healed by the Lord."
The Truth: Magic Johnson owes his continued good health to the same HIV medications that are available to everyone.
There is no true "cure" for HIV. However, the excellent medications available to treat HIV today can keep you in good health - like Magic Johnson - indefinitely.
In fact, most people with HIV who take their medications faithfully can reduce their "viral load" to "undetectable" levels. That literally means that a test for the HIV virus cannot find any in your body. Magic Johnson's viral load has been "undetectable" for many years. Doesn't that mean he's cured?
Unfortunately, no. If Magic - or anyone else - stops taking his medications, the virus comes roaring back. It hides in reservoirs in the body where the best medications available today cannot eradicate it.
However, the good news is that, if you keep your viral load "undetectable," there is so little HIV in your body that it has very little chance to hurt you. So that is a very desirable goal!!! Though HIV cannot yet be "cured," it can certainly be controlled by the medications we have today - and controlled very well! Take your medications faithfully and you can be as healthy as Magic Johnson.
The Myth: You can get HIV from a mosquito bite.
Again, this is an easy myth to understand. You can certainly get serious diseases from a mosquito bite, including dengue fever, the West Nile virus, yellow fever, and malaria. A mosquito bite draws blood, and blood exchange is one of the ways HIV is transmitted. So it makes sense to think that you could get HIV from a mosquito.
The Truth: You cannot get HIV from a mosquito bite.
There is no record of anyone ever getting HIV from a mosquito. Here's what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say about it: "From the start of the HIV epidemic, there has been concern about HIV transmission from biting and bloodsucking insects such as mosquitoes. However, studies conducted by the CDC and elsewhere have shown no evidence of HIV transmission from mosquitoes or any other insects - even in areas where there are many cases of AIDS and large populations of mosquitoes. Lack of such outbreaks, despite intense efforts to detect them, support the conclusion that HIV is not transmitted by insects."
The fact is, HIV is not transmitted that easily. You can't get it from a toilet seat, from shaking hands, hugging, or kissing. You can't get it from eating off the plate of someone who has HIV, or drinking out of their glass.
You can't even get HIV if someone with the virus spits on you - saliva is not a fluid that transmits the disease. Neither are urine, tears, sweat, feces or vomit, unless there is blood present in them.
There are only three ways:
1. Through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex.
2. As a result of direct blood contact, which may occur through needle sharing, blood transfusions, or medical accidents
3. Mother to baby, before or during birth or through breast milk.
The Myth: You can't get HIV from oral sex.
The Truth: Although the risk is less, you can get HIV from oral sex.
Alright, this is a tricky one. First, it is a difficult subject to research, because very few people engage in oral sex exclusively. Scientists agree that the risk of HIV transmission by oral sex is much lower than through vaginal or anal sex. But the risk is still there. You can get HIV through oral sex. Use a condom!
The Myth: It's not the HIV that kills you, it's the HIV drugs.
Sheer nonsense! This is one of the most pernicious myths of them all, because it keeps people from taking drugs that would keep them alive and healthy indefinitely.
The Truth: The drugs don't kill you - they keep you alive! HIV medications have changed HIV from a death sentence into a manageable, chronic disease.
In late 1995 and early 1996, scientists developed the first effective treatment for HIV, which consisted of a "cocktail" of three or more HIV medications. Called "HAART" - "Highly-Effective Anti-Retroviral Therapy" - this is still the basis for HIV treatment today, although the drugs involved have improved tremendously since then!
Even those first drug cocktails were so effective that people talked about the "Lazarus Effect." People who were within days of dying from AIDS took the drugs and recovered. Within a year, the number of people who died from AIDS dropped dramatically. AIDS hospices and dedicated AIDS wards in hospitals literally closed down.
Thanks to the medications, today, dying from AIDS has gone from being commonplace to rare. The fact is, most people with HIV today will end up dying of something other than AIDS. No one lives forever, of course - everyone dies eventually. But the current HIV drugs are so effective they will likely keep you alive until you die of some other disease - or old age.
Copyright 2015, Positive Health Publications, Inc.
This magazine is intended to enhance your relationship with your doctor - not replace it! Medical treatments and products should always be discussed with a licensed physician who has experience treating HIV and AIDS!