When I was diagnosed with HIV a few years ago, I was understandably pretty scared. The doctors and nurses kept trying to tell me that everything was going to be okay, but all I had in my head were images from the early ’90s, watching millions of people die from AIDS. We are usually most afraid of the things we don’t know anything about, which was exactly what was happening to me.
Living with HIV, I am often shocked and saddened when I realize that there are so many things about HIV that people don’t know, things that should seriously be common knowledge.
Since December 1st is World AIDS Day, now seems like a perfect time to talk about them. Because HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns are often targeted at the demographic groups it disproportionately affects—people of color, gay men, transgender people, IV drug users—people outside those groups can make it through most of their adult lives thinking the condition has nothing to do with them. But HIV can affect anyone, and anyone can transmit it. If you’re sexually active and don’t always use protection, you are at risk, regardless of your sexual orientation, gender, or skin color.
There are still 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States, and it’s important that everyone understand this virus if we want to continue lowering that number and keeping people healthy.
So here are seven things you might not know about HIV/AIDS:
1HIV and AIDS are not the same thing
This is probably one of the most frustrating things for people living with HIV (or at least it’s my biggest pet peeve). There are still so many people who use HIV and AIDS interchangeably. HIV stands for “human immunodeficiency virus.” It’s a virus that can cause an infection by attacking a person’s immune system and breaking it down, causing AIDS.
AIDS stands for “acquired immune deficiency syndrome,” a collection of symptoms and infections. A person can have HIV but not AIDS. But if you have AIDS, you have HIV. They are not the same thing, and if you could remind people for me when you hear them slip up, I’ll send you a cookie. Pinky swear.
2HIV can be transmitted in many different ways
There’s a terrible myth about HIV that it’s only a “gay disease.” Or that only gay men can transmit it. That’s not true, and it’s the very reason HIV, and the stigma that comes with it, continues to spread.
Both men and women can transmit HIV. It’s passed through blood, semen, pre-seminal fluids, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk, which is why most people get it by having unprotected sex or sharing needles with a person living with HIV. HIV is not passed through saliva, so you can’t get it through a kiss or a touch. You also can’t get HIV from a toilet seat or by sharing a a fork with an HIV-positive person.
If you think you’re at risk for HIV, you can ask your doctor about PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis. It’s an anti-HIV medication that you can take every day, with little-to-no side effects, that will prevent transmission so you have nothing to worry about.
3HIV is a not a “death sentence”
Back at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, people were rapidly dying from AIDS because we didn’t have the right medicine to treat them. People still die from AIDS—in 2014, just under 7,000 people died from HIV/AIDS in the United States. But with advances in antiretroviral treatment, and thanks to the hard work of activists getting politicians and health care companies to wake up, HIV is now a chronic, manageable condition.
I take one pill a day, for example, to suppress the virus from attacking my immune system. Many people living with HIV lead long, healthy lives. In fact, many of them have undetectable viral loads, which means that the amount of the HIV virus in their body can’t even be detected by a lab test and they can’t transmit it.
4There are HIV-positive people who cannot transmit the virus
This is probably the coolest thing to happen in the HIV/AIDS community in a long time. People who are undetectable cannot transmit the virus in any way. This is why it’s so important that people have access to health care, so that they can get tested, get on medication right away (and be able to afford it), and work with their doctor to bring their viral load down.
In the HIV community, there’s a mantra that goes, “treatment is prevention,” and this is what it means. Of course, we still want to fight for a cure for HIV, but this advance is pretty darn close. This is why I shouldn’t have been scared when I was diagnosed: people with HIV can live long lives and not transmit to their partners. It’s pretty amazing if you think about how, just decades ago, that was not the case.
5People can still go to jail for being HIV-positive
Because of the stigma caused by misinformation about HIV, there are states in the U.S.—and elsewhere, like Canada—where people can go to jail for not disclosing their HIV status. Even if they are undetectable and can’t transmit it, even if they use protection, even if there is no transmission. In some states, spitting on someone if you have HIV could lead to a prison sentence, even though HIV isn’t transmitted through saliva.
There are activists working hard to change these laws. Some of the laws are HIV-specific, which means a person can be charged as a sex offender or a violent criminal for sleeping with someone without telling them about their HIV status, even if they don’t transmit the virus. But if you have, say, herpes and transmit it (which is much easier to do), it’s not considered a crime.
Some states even have “sentencing enhancement,” which means a person can face more time in jail just because they’re HIV-positive, even if they didn’t give it to anyone. Knowing what we know now about HIV and treating it, it shouldn’t be that way. In addition to all of that, these laws affect people of color and transgender people the most, groups that are already marginalized in our society. UGH.
6People of color are more likely to get HIV in general
In addition to being more likely to be prosecuted for not disclosing their HIV status, people of color are also just more likely to get the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in two gay black men will get HIV. A study from 2015 found that, of new cases of HIV among people under 25 years old, 80% of them are black or Hispanic men.
Despite all of the progress being made in HIV treatment, people of color still do not have access to care because of stigma and lack of economic resources. Therefore, HIV is more likely to progress to AIDS if you’re black or Hispanic.
Sadly enough, white privilege exists even in the HIV community, where prevention and treatment campaigns (and the ever-important ads for PrEP) are often targeted at those already in the health care system, leaving people of color in lower-income areas out of the loop and in danger of dying.
7There are many people with HIV who don’t know they have it
Of the 1.2 million people in the United States living with HIV, there are still one in eight people who don’t know they have it. That’s why it’s so important that everyone, no matter what, gets tested for HIV on the regular. People living with HIV who are getting treated and are likely undetectable are much healthier than the person who doesn’t even know their status.
So in the name of World AIDS Day, or if any of these things surprised you, go get an HIV test. There’s nothing to be scared of.