Nearly 37 million people in the world live with HIV, and 2.6 million of them are under the age of 15. Still, there seem to be a lot of misconceptions about the disease, which is the most feared and most misunderstood sexually transmitted infection. That's why today, National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day, is so important for both raising awareness of prevention and clearing up misconceptions about what it means to live with HIV.
“One thing that younger people need to know is that HIV has been around for a long time, and there have been a lot improvements in medicine, but it’s still a problem, a threat to us still,” Marcella Flores, PhD, the associate director of research at amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, tells Teen Vogue.
Here are five common misconceptions about HIV that you should stop believing:
MYTH: If both partners test negative or positive for HIV, there’s no need for condom use.
There are a lot of other sexually transmitted infections aside from HIV that you could also get from a partner. “HIV is just one of the many things you have to be concerned with if you’re starting with a new partner,” says Marcella. And while condoms are "one of the most important tools that we have as sexually active women and men" since they decrease transmission risk of STIs, they aren't foolproof. That's why it's so important to make sure you and your partner get tested for STIs regularly.
Still, condom use is a good habit to get into. And don’t fall into the habit of relying on your partner, or possible partner, to supply a condom. If you’re leaving the house with the intention of possibly having sex, bring your own. In addition, make sure the condom is latex — lambskin condoms do not block against HIV (or other STIs, for that matter).
MYTH: You can’t get HIV from oral sex.
“Oral sex can absolutely transmit HIV, especially if you’re receiving the ejaculate,” says Marcella. However, using dental dams and condoms can help protect against infection, by keeping fluids from entering the mouth,
MYTH: You can get HIV from sweat, saliva, tears, and sharing toilet seats.
“This is obviously a myth,” says Marcella. “It’s blood-to-blood contact and sexual contact, and regular wear and tear from sex acts. You won’t get HIV from standing next to someone sweating on the subway. You won’t get HIV from kissing. It cannot happen.”
Only certain fluids from a person with HIV — blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk — can transmit HIV. According to the CDC, these fluids must come in contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue or be directly injected into the bloodstream (from a needle or syringe) for transmission to occur.
MYTH: Modern drugs have eliminated much of the risk of HIV.
Marcella stresses that while antiretrovirals have changed the course of the treatment, and are very effective, nothing is 100% effective. “There’s always some risk,” she says. “The drugs are really important for keeping you healthy and living longer. But never discount the virus.”
Staying healthy, positive, and seeking proper treatment and therapy are essential if you’re HIV-positive. That's why it's so important to be open and honest with new partners.
MYTH: HIV is a death sentence.
“We’re living in a completely new era of being HIV positive,” says Marcella. “It’s not like it was at the beginning of the epidemic, when it was a death sentence. There are side effects to taking the drugs, but by and large you’re as healthy as your friends.”
She’s also optimistic about society’s role in ensuring that HIV-positive patients don’t get disheartened. “There are so many ways to find support, to make sure you don’t feel like a pariah, to let you know you’re not alone out there. Therapies are the best they’ve ever been, and hopefully as we increase our research, we will find a cure.”
Still, she stresses that being vigilant and making safe sex a priority is the only real way to keep new cases at bay. The fight against HIV is best fought in the open, as we’ve seen over the years, and Marcella believes that being open and honest about safe sex can do wonders.
“Personally, as an advocate of safe sex, I believe that, in general, parents and teachers and aunts and uncles should be able to talk as matter-of-factly and openly about sex and sexual preferences and birth control and safe sex,” she says. “I’ve definitely made it a point in my life to talk to my nieces and nephews about these things. And talking very matter-of-factly and honestly, so that there’s no stigma against it — that helps.”
Remember, if you want to engage in any sexual activity with a new partner, make sure you know their sexual history first. If they can't remember the last time they were tested, you can find an HIV testing station here. In honor of National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day, do yourself a favor and go get tested. And if that sounds like a huge hassle to you, then all the more reason to bring a friend or loved one to get tested with you. Make it a bonding experience! Everything's more fun with a friend.
For more information, like the difference between HIV and AIDS, here's everything you need to know about the most misunderstood STI.