More than three decades into the epidemic, myths still run rampant
Though we’re 30-plus years into the HIV epidemic, many people are still ignorant about the basic facts of the disease. Here are five things you should know about the virus that causes AIDS:
1. Being HIV-positive means you have AIDS.
Fiction. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that destroys the body’s CD4 immune cells; these cells help fight disease. With the right medications, you can have HIV for many years without it progressing to AIDS. AIDS is diagnosed when you have HIV as well as certain opportunistic infections or your CD4 cell count drops below 200.
2. You can’t get HIV from casual contact.
Fact. HIV is spread through unprotected sex, shared intravenous needles, or tattoos created with unsterilized equipment. You can’t catch or spread HIV from hugging, using the same towel, or sharing the same glass. It’s very rare to get HIV from a blood transfusion since the U.S. blood supply has been carefully tested since 1985.
3. Anyone can be infected with HIV.
Fact. Anyone can get HIV—men, women, children, and people who are gay or straight, young or old. Men who have sex with men make up more than half (63 percent in 2010) of new HIV infections each year. Women account for 20 percent of new infections, and children 13 percent. African-Americans make up roughly 44 percent of all new HIV infections each year. About 50,000 people in this country get HIV each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 million Americans are living with HIV, and 1 in 5 don’t know they are infected.
4. You’ll have symptoms that let you know you’re infected with HIV.
Fiction. Some people don’t show any signs of HIV for years after being infected. Many can have some symptoms within 10 days to a few weeks after infection. Some of the first symptoms are similar to—and may be dismissed as—the flu (fever, fatigue and sore throat). They usually disappear after a few weeks and you may not have symptoms again for several years. The only way to know your HIV status for sure is to get tested.
5. HIV can be cured.
Fiction. There is still no cure for HIV, though treatment can keep virus levels low and help maintain your immune system. Some drugs interfere with proteins HIV needs to copy itself; others block the virus from inserting its genetic material into your immune cells. Your doctor will consider your general health, the health of your immune system and the amount of virus in your body to decide when to start treatment.