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Health - HIV/AIDS

Author: Edward L Winston
Added: November 21st, 2009

Out of all the myths and conspiracies out there, I believe that AIDS denialism and the general misconceptions about HIV/AIDS are the most dangerous. There are a lot of famous people, such as Bill Maher and the Foo Fighters who promote AIDS denialism in some form or fashion. In this article I hope to dispel much of the most common myths associated with HIV/AIDS and hope that you, the reader, will learn something new or at least have the tools to discuss with someone affected with HIV/AIDS or a denier the dangers of this virus and disease.

Avoid transmission of HIV by having STD tests if there are symptoms.

Table of Contents

  1. General Myths
    1. HIV and AIDS are the same thing
    2. HIV and AIDS are unrelated
    3. HIV/AIDS is a death sentence
    4. HIV/AIDS prevents one from having children
    5. HIV/AIDS is a gay disease
    6. HIV can spread through kissing
    7. HIV tests are flawed
    8. Getting tested for HIV/AIDS is pointless
    9. If one has HIV, he/she only needs to start his/her treatment when he/she is sick
    10. I would know if I, or someone else, had HIV/AIDS
    11. AIDS is a problem only in places like Africa and/or amongst black people
    12. Governments in Africa over report the HIV/AIDS problem for more money
    13. Government officials in Africa pocket HIV/AIDS money
    14. HIV will/has become airborne
    15. HIV is spread via mosquitoes
    16. Super AIDS is much worse than regular HIV
    17. Blood transfusions are now obsolete due to the increased risk of HIV transmission
    18. HIV tainted products were dumped into the water supply
    19. Woman with AIDS on YouTube infects men for revenge
  2. Prevention Myths
    1. Birth control prevents the spread of HIV
    2. Only gays and drug users, people in certain "risk groups", contract HIV
    3. If both partners have HIV, there's no need to use protection
    4. There's no such thing as safe sex
    5. One cannot have more than one STD at a time
    6. One cannot get HIV from oral sex
    7. Those who are being treated for HIV/AIDS cannot transmit it
    8. HIV antibody testing is unreliable
    9. Women cannot give HIV to men
    10. One cannot get HIV from piercings or tattoos
    11. Coca-Cola can prevent the spread of HIV
    12. If people would just stop being promiscuous and using drugs HIV/AIDS would go away
    13. Diverting resources to fight poverty and water borne illness will help slow the growth of HIV/AIDS
    14. One can get HIV from donating blood
    15. One can shower after unsafe sex to help prevent HIV transmission
  3. Treatment Myths
    1. One must take medication exactly 12 hours apart
    2. One must take his/her medication 100% on time, ever time, or it will stop working
    3. One can avoid taking medications on vacations and holidays
    4. AIDS medications are more dangerous than HIV is
  4. Cure Myths
    1. There is a cure for HIV/AIDS
    2. Big Pharma keeps cures for HIV/AIDS suppressed
    3. Having sex with a virgin can cleanse the body of HIV
    4. Having sex with an animal can cleanse the body of HIV
    5. Drinking hydrogen peroxide can cleanse the body of HIV
  5. Origin Myths
    1. HIV was created by the government
    2. HIV came into the human population via sex with monkeys
    3. HIV medications are actually the origin of AIDS
    4. AIDS is actually caused by poverty and malnutrition

General Myths

General myths you're likely to hear from everyday people about HIV/AIDS.

HIV and AIDS are the same thing

HIV and AIDS are the exact same thing.

This is a common misconception that I find most people suffer from. HIV, which stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is a virus which leads to AIDS, which itself stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome[1]. I actually remember what these acronyms stand for from watching Bill Nye the Science Guy years ago.

One can have HIV without having AIDS, and in fact one does not have AIDS until his/her CD4 count drops below 200 or related infections or cancers occur[2].

HIV and AIDS are unrelated

There are several misconceptions, and they are:

HIV has never met Koch's Postulates and therefore cannot be considered the cause of AIDS

In the late 1800s Robert Koch came up with a set of criteria to establish relationships between bacteria and disease, and they are:

  1. The microorganism must be found in abundance in all organisms suffering from the disease, but should not be found in healthy animals.
  2. The microorganism must be isolated from a diseased organism and grown in a pure culture.
  3. The cultured microorganism should cause disease when introduced into a healthy organism.
  4. The microorganism must be reisolated from the inoculated, diseased experimental host and identified as being identical to the original specific causative agent.

This list is used by AIDS deniers as proof that HIV and AIDS are unrelated. There are a few problems with this, most specifically that the Koch Postulates apply to bacteria, not viruses, as they were not known at the time[3]. Regarding each postulate:

  1. In 1993 the US CDC reviewed 230,179 cases of AIDS-like illness, and out of that only 47 tested negative for HIV, that's 0.025%[4]
  2. HIV has been isolated many times with modern virology[5][6]
  3. While no one will deliberately infect a person with HIV in a scientific setting, there have been cases of accidental exposure that lead to AIDS[7].
  4. There are currently no good ways to vaccinate anyone against HIV, but the same goes for Herpes, so I'm not sure why that isn't denied.

HIV is not widespread in the western world, this proves that the research into HIV/AIDS is flawed

After the initial discovery of HIV there were a lot of predictions that the virus would explode rapidly beyond homosexual men and drug users into the general population. This never really happened in the west, but it happened in Africa. There are several theories as to why this happened:

Some believe that the strain most common to Africa is more easily spread by vaginal sex, while strains in the west are less easily spread that way and are more likely to enter the body by anal sex and intravenous drug use. On the other hand, some contend that in Africa it is more common for individuals to have two (or more) long-term sexual partners at the same time, while in the west individuals may have more sex partners in their lives, they are less likely to have sex with multiple partners at once[8].

HIV/AIDS is a death sentence

Once one is diagnosed with HIV they are going to die soon after.

Today one can live a full-life with HIV, so long as they take the appropriate medication and treatment programs[9].

HIV/AIDS prevents one from having children

One with HIV cannot have children because it will infect the unborn baby.

This was true at one time, but today women with HIV can still have families. There are steps that must be taken in order to keep the children from getting HIV, but the risk of infection is still about 25%[10].

HIV/AIDS is a gay disease

HIV/AIDS is a gay disease and only gay people get it.

Only 1% of human beings are naturally immune from HIV[11], this means that 99% of people on Earth can get HIV regardless of their sexual orientation. While early in the recognition of the spread of HIV homosexual men were the target of study, today HIV is spread far more by heterosexuals than homosexuals[12].

HIV/AIDS is a gay disease sent by God to kill gay people.

The same applies above, naturally if God did make a disease to kill only homosexuals, he failed horribly as most people who have died from it and who become infected with it are not homosexuals.

HIV can spread through kissing

One can get HIV by kissing a person infected with HIV

Closed mouth kissing does not pose a risk for transmission of HIV, but the potential for transmission during open-mouthed kissing still remains. The CDC recommends not making out with someone who is infected with HIV[12].

HIV tests are flawed

HIV tests are flawed, so one shouldn't get tested as there is a high potential for a false-positive.

Originally the ELISA test would generate false positives with someone who had recently been vaccinated for influenza, however the test was improved in the mid-1990s. The odds of receiving a false positive today are about 1 in 1,000[13].

Getting tested for HIV/AIDS is pointless

Getting tested for HIV/AIDS is pointless because...

Whatever reason against getting tested one may have is wrong. Getting tested allows one to receive treatment early and avoid dying an early death. It also gives individuals the power to keep from passing the virus on to other individuals[14]. If one does not get treated, one can rest assured he or she has only about 9 to 11 years left to live[15].

If one has HIV, he/she only needs to start his/her treatment when he/she is sick

If one is feeling well, there's no need to take medication until one is feeling sick.

Regardless of how one feels HIV still attacks the immune system, and by the time one starts feeling sick, HIV has already damaged one's immune system and nothing can bring it back to normal[10].

I would know if I, or someone else, had HIV/AIDS

I would know if I, or someone else, had HIV/AIDS; She or he looks clean, they're fine!

A person infected with HIV may not show symptoms for up to 10 years, because it affects each person differently, many people can go years feeling and looking perfectly healthy. During this time HIV is still transmissible[10][12].

AIDS is a problem only in places like Africa and/or amongst black people

AIDS is a problem only in places like Africa and/or amongst black people

In total around 42 million people in the world live with HIV/AIDS, and 70% of them are in sub-Saharan Africa. That being said, HIV still continues to spread beyond the borders of Africa, especially to countries with high rates of poverty and inequality. Currently Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Latin America have the highest rate in growth of HIV infection. Eventually HIV globally will overtake HIV in Africa[16].

Governments in Africa over report the HIV/AIDS problem for more money

Governments in Africa over report the HIV/AIDS problem for more money

The UN and World Health Organization estimate and control HIV cases and most AIDS programs, not local governments[17], that being said, estimating the total number of individuals is far easier than treating all of them, which is why other treatment programs are left up to other international organizations such as the Red Cross. In any case, governments don't simply report the number and wait for money to roll in; a perfect example is South Africa, which only recently acknowledged HIV/AIDS existed, prior to that the government embraced AIDS denialism[18].

Government officials in Africa pocket HIV/AIDS money

Government officials in Africa pocket HIV/AIDS money

Corruption is unavoidable in poverty stricken nations, but various programs and mechanisms are put in place to help be sure any money that does go to governments has complete accountability, this especially goes for programs to fight tuberculosis and malaria[16]. See above for more information.

HIV will/has become airborne

HIV will/has become airborne

HIV is not airborne and likely will never be. Herpes, HPV, and Hepatitis have been around much longer and show no signs of becoming airborne.

HIV is spread via mosquitoes

HIV can be spread by mosquitoes, so I use a whole can of OFF! when I go outside.

Before you go crazy with OFF!, you should know that HIV cannot be spread via mosquitoes, because they do not inject the blood of a previous victim into the next person they bite. They do however inject their saliva, which does cause the spread of diseases like malaria and West Nile virus[19].

However, it's worth noting that if one smashes a mosquito on themselves, onto an open wound, and that blood happens to be HIV positive, it is technically possible that HIV could be spread this way, however there's no known cases where HIV has spread this way[20].

Super AIDS is much worse than regular HIV

There's a strain of HIV much worse than regular HIV and it's called Super AIDS

Originally "Super AIDS" was a term used by those ignorant of HIV and believed there to be super virulent strains, however in 2005 it finally began to be informally used for a specific strain of HIV that appeared in four different people in New York City. The virus was resistant to some of the more common anti-retroviral drugs and was also more effective was infecting T-cells[21]. The strain however, proved to still be vulnerable to Enfuvirtide[22]. It has proven to be more of a media scare than a real threat.

Blood transfusions are now obsolete due to the increased risk of HIV transmission

The risk of contracting HIV from blood transfusions makes them unsafe and every year hundreds of people are infected with HIV via donated blood.

Blood transfusions do pose a risk, and while all blood is screened, since March 1985 there have only been 41 cases of individuals infected via blood transfusion that tested negative for HIV. In that time there have been more than 216 million successful and clean transfusions in the United States, that's 41:216,000,000+[23]. One of the reasons the Red Cross never pays anyone to donate blood is because it would encourage some people to lie about their health histories, including having HIV, so it helps reduce the chance some[23].

HIV tainted products were dumped into the water supply

HIV tainted products were dumped into the water supply to hide them.

This conspiracy theory comes from a misunderstood and misrepresented event that happened 26 years ago (as of writing this).

Contaminated blood products were a large problem in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is primarily due to the fact that HIV was not screenable. In January 1983 Bayer acknowledged that there was evidence to say HIV had passed through their blood plasma products. Heat treatment helped the virus become undetectable, but certain countries such as France kept using the pre-heat treated product anyway. Bayer's Cutter division reportedly told countries like Hong Kong to use up their "current stocks before switching to the new, safer product"[24]

The word "dumping" in the news stories refers to "dumping the product on third world countries", some conspiracy theorists spin this to say it was "dumped in the water supply" but this isn't true and HIV cannot last outside the human body or a specialized environment for more than a few hours[25]. It wasn't until May 1985 that the FDA came to task and forced Bayer to comply, however the FDA wanted the whole situation to stay quiet but be done quickly. By July 1985 the original product had finally stopped being shipped and used all together[24]. Unfortunately no corporate executives have yet to be investigated and probably never will be.

Woman with AIDS on YouTube infects men for revenge

In January 2010 a video appeared on YouTube with a young woman claiming to be infected with AIDS and out of revenge was infecting random men[45].

This turned out to be a hoax video perpetrated by a 24 year old Detroit woman. Upon being found by the police she agreed to a blood test which proved she was HIV negative. She was not charged with a crime[46].

(Contributed by Barron L Miles Jr)

Prevention Myths

This section refers to myths to help prevent or control the spread of HIV.

Birth control prevents the spread of HIV

Birth control methods like diaphragms, spermicides, sponges, Norplant, the pill, etc help protect against the spread of HIV.

These methods exist to help prevent pregnancy, but they literally do nothing to help stop the spread of HIV or other STDs for that matter. The best way to help prevent the spread of STDs, especially HIV is to use a condom every time[26]. Lamb skin condoms also do not prevent the spread of HIV very well, furthermore various spermicides can actually increase the risk of HIV transmission because they irritate the cervix[26].

Only gays and drug users, people in certain "risk groups", contract HIV

Only gays and drug users, people in certain "risk groups", contract HIV

Most individuals infected with HIV are not homosexuals and were never drug users[12], HIV doesn't respect boundaries of race, creed, drug use, sexual preference, it will spread like any other virus: any way it can. This is a particularly dangerous myth because many of those, especially in the US, that have contracted HIV believed this myth; use a condom every time.

If both partners have HIV, there's no need to use protection

If both partners have HIV, there's no need to use protection

Unlike those web sites where people with herpes date each other to limit the spread of infection, HIV can actually re-infect individuals making treatment much more difficult. There has been a rise in multiple infections of HIV due to this belief[10].

There's no such thing as safe sex

There's no such thing as safe sex

Condoms, when used correctly [example 1; example 2], are virtually 100% effective at preventing HIV as well as many other diseases and pregnancy. I feel a special need to note that you should never use multiple condoms at once, I knew several guys in high school who thought this was more effective, it's not!

You can also practice "safer sex", which is sex without penetration, not as fun but it helps. Condoms should also be used during oral sex, as there are many diseases that can spread that way as well, especially herpes, gonorrhea, and chlamydia - so don't put yourself in a position to have to explain away those bumps on your face or genitals or your visits to the local clinic, use a condom every time.

One cannot have more than one STD at a time

One cannot have more than one STD at a time

This is a highly dangerous misconception, as having an STD increases the likelihood of contracting other STDs. Depending on what the current infection is, your rate of infection of another virus can be increased between 10 and 300 times[12].

One cannot get HIV from oral sex

One cannot get HIV from oral sex

You can get many STDs via oral sex, especially herpes, gonorrhea, and chlamydia, and even HIV depending on the circumstances[12]. Use a condom or latex barrier during oral sex, every time, that includes anal sex as well.

Those who are being treated for HIV/AIDS cannot transmit it

Those who are being treated for HIV/AIDS cannot transmit it

I remember first hearing about this misconception when it become popular in my local inner-city, in the most poverty stricken areas, and it appears to be believed widely. It doesn't matter how healthy you feel or are, if you have HIV, you can still transmit it, even if your current medication has made the virus almost undetectable[12].

HIV antibody testing is unreliable

HIV antibody testing is unreliable

HIV antibody testing actually exceeds the performance of most other tests in that it's highly sensitive and specific to HIV; it has a 96% success rate, which is far more reliable than many other tests[28].

Women cannot give HIV to men

Women cannot give HIV to men

While it is more difficult for a woman to give a man HIV, it is not impossible and does happen, and having other STDs increases the risk greatly[10].

One cannot get HIV from piercings or tattoos

One cannot get HIV from piercings or tattoos

If a tool used in body piercing or tattooing is contaminated with blood then it's possible to contract HIV. The CDC recommend disposing of any product which penetrates the skin after a single use. If you go to get a tattoo or piercing, inquire about this, and if they do not open a fresh needle, run away![10]

Coca-Cola can prevent the spread of HIV

Coca-Cola can prevent the spread of HIV

This is a misconception that's most popular in Malaysia, that if one cleans oneself before and/or after sex with Coca-Cola, then one can avoid getting HIV[29]. I don't think I need a source to prove this wouldn't work.

If people would just stop being promiscuous and using drugs HIV/AIDS would go away

If people would just stop being promiscuous and using drugs HIV/AIDS would go away

The ability to fight HIV isn't as simple as not having sex or using drugs; the entire world isn't like middle America, there are many socioeconomic factors that do things like drive people into prostitution; economic instability, gender and ethnic inequality, labor migration, armed conflict, etc. all cause problems within populations to help the spread of disease.

Diverting resources to fight poverty and water borne illness will help slow the growth of HIV/AIDS

Diverting resources to fight poverty and water borne illness will help slow the growth of HIV/AIDS

This misconception is used both by well-meaning people and by AIDS deniers. The fact is HIV/AIDS kills primarily young adults who are in the prime of their lives and cannot contribute labor back into their society, which causes food production to fail, status of the population is undermined, and various other problems arise. Further, young children are left parentless, leading to hunger, poor health, lack of education, rise in crime and sexual exploitation, etc. Simply diverting money to grow corn in the Sahara will not fix the problem at all.

One can get HIV from donating blood

One can get HIV from donating blood

I only included this one because I found a form of it asked on a forum. The Red Cross uses disposable, single use, pre-packed needles and they are only used once[23]. The Red Cross relies on having a stable and adequate blood supply, so donate regularly!

One can shower after unsafe sex to help prevent HIV transmission

One can shower after unsafe sex to help prevent HIV transmission

This was a believe popularized by Jacob Zuma, Deputy President of South Africa, because he disclosed that he had unprotected sex with a woman he knew to be HIV-positive, but stressed that he showered after sex, therefore reducing his chances of contracting AIDS. In reality, showering after sex is just about as useful as using Coca-Cola after sex to help prevent HIV[31].

Treatment Myths

Myths and misconceptions regarding the treatment of HIV and AIDS.

One must take medication exactly 12 hours apart

One must take medication exactly 12 hours apart

Treatment schedules should be followed as closely as possible, but being an hour or two off won't be cause for alarm, unless one is on Crixivan, then one must be very careful about timing[32].

One must take his/her medication 100% on time, ever time, or it will stop working

One must take his/her medication 100% on time, ever time, or it will stop working

This is related to the one above. In reality you have to be accurate and on time with your medication around 95% of the time, as any less than that and HIV has an easier time developing resistance[32].

One can avoid taking medications on vacations and holidays

One can avoid taking medications on vacations and holidays because of the strength of the medications and/or because one feels fine.

One should never stop taking his/her medication, ever, unless told so by a (well-informed) doctor. If one stops taking his/her medication, it cause damage to the immune system and help create resistant strains of HIV[32].

AIDS medications are more dangerous than HIV is

AIDS medications are more dangerous than HIV is

or

AIDS medications are actually the cause of the symptoms of AIDS, not HIV

or

Antiretroviral drugs are poisons

This is a strong talking point for AIDS deniers, but it's simply not true. The first AIDS medications had many side effects, but that's starting to change, and because people are taking their medications the death rate by AIDS is down 80% in the US[32][33][34].

Cure Myths

Myths and misconceptions regarding cures for HIV and AIDS.

There is a cure for HIV/AIDS

There is a cure for HIV/AIDS

There is no cure for HIV, but treatment today is much more successful than it used to be. While there is no cure, many people are still working on it, and with proper funding and research there will be a cure and/or vaccine eventually[10].

Big Pharma keeps cures for HIV/AIDS suppressed

Big business in the medical industry has kept cures for HIV and AIDS suppressed for profits.

Antiretroviral drugs produced by "big pharma" are actually becoming much cheaper all over the world, especially in the United States. Despite this claim, it hasn't stopped big business for making vaccines to combat other viruses such as HPV (Gardasil), and one could easily argue that the spread and treatment of HPV and the cancers it causes would be much more profitable than a single shot. The truth is, many scientists are working on finding vaccines for cures for HIV, it's just very difficult.

Having sex with a virgin can cleanse the body of HIV

Having sex with a virgin can cleanse the body of HIV

The concept of virgin cleansing has been around since at least the 16th century in Europe when it was believed that having sex with a virgin would rid oneself of sexually transmitted diseases. Today this belief is most commonly held in sub-Saharan Africa. The reality is fairly obvious, if one has HIV with a virgin, they are likely to pass on HIV to that person[35][36].

Having sex with an animal can cleanse the body of HIV

Having sex with an animal can cleanse the body of HIV

This is a belief related to the virgin cleansing belief and is mostly widely believed amongst youth in South Africa[37], and the belief is that having sex with an animal will help immunize or cure HIV/AIDS. While it's unlikely that having sex with an animal will cause one to contract HIV, one can get many other diseases.

Drinking hydrogen peroxide can cleanse the body of HIV

Drinking hydrogen peroxide can cleanse the body of HIV

The idea that drinking or injecting hydrogen peroxide will cleanse the body of HIV originates primarily from South Africa, where even today it is promoted by small pharmacies and alternative medicine practitioners. Needless to say, it doesn't work, and could even kill you[38].

Origin Myths

The part most people probably came for, the myths and misconceptions about the origin of HIV/AIDS.

HIV was created by the government

HIV was created by the government [to wipe out a group] or [for population control].

The theory that it was created really doesn't hold water. Consider first that if it were going to be used to wipe out a group, it's failed horribly, as it's spread far beyond any specific group and hasn't even come close to wiping anyone else. Furthermore if it were for population control they wouldn't provide aid to countries and individuals looking for treatment for their HIV symptoms, nor would they waste money on educating people.

One of the earliest infections of HIV was in a blood sample taken in 1959 from a man living in the Belgian Congo, this was long before human beings had knowledge of genetic engineering or real in-depth knowledge of virology[39]. There's also a similar case from 1960 where another individual, a woman this time, in the Belgian Congo was known to have HIV[40].

Extremely close relatives of HIV are known to exist in the wild as well, such as Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) otherwise known as Feline AIDS[41]. If they created Feline HIV to wipe out cats, they've done a terrible job, I have a whole pride of those things running around my neighborhood, but the winter freeze typically takes care a lot of them much better than FIV ever has.

Did the government create FIV too?

Another, and even more closely related, retrovirus is Simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV)[42].

Did the government create SIV too? Perhaps in an attempt to wipe out roller skating chimps?

Naturally if the government was able to engineer a virus at a time when it was pretty much impossible, they would have also had to engineer its relatives either on accident or on purpose. Of course, one could argue that FIV and SIV were used as a base to create HIV, but neither of those work like HIV, and in a world prior to genetic engineering, how would that be possible?

HIV and SIV had a common ancestor between 1884 and 1914, and genetic engineer was not possible at all at the time[43].

HIV came into the human population via sex with monkeys

HIV came into the human population via sex with monkeys

I'm not sure if many people actually believe this, but kids love joking about it, so I figured I'd cover it. HIV likely originated from SIV, which is common amongst apes[42], when being hunted for food, the blood of the dead apes came in contact with human blood, either by an accidental knife cut or similar action. As noted in the above section, SIV and HIV had a common ancestor around 100 years ago, well before genetic engineer or the knowledge of viruses that we have today.

HIV medications are actually the origin of AIDS

HIV medications are actually the origin of AIDS

This is another AIDS denialism talking point, and is discussed above in the AIDS medications are more dangerous than HIV is section.

AIDS is actually caused by poverty and malnutrition

AIDS is actually caused by poverty and malnutrition

Yet another AIDS denialism talking point, and is partially discussed in the Diverting resources section. This is mainly a way to explain the high amount of AIDS infections in Africa as compared to the western world, however years of AIDS denialism in South Africa did little to slow the spread of HIV there, and all during this time poverty and malnutrition were falling, in total contrast with AIDS[45].