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 sad when I realize that there are so many things about HIV that people don’t know, things that should seriously be common knowledge.
Since April is STD Awareness Month, now seems like a perfect time to talk about them. Because HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns are often targeted at demographic groups it disproportionately affects — people of color, gay men, transgender people, drug users who use IV needles — other people seem to make it through most of their adult lives thinking that it has nothing to do with them. But HIV can affect anyone and anyone can transmit it. If you’re sexually active in the United States 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 it. HIV is transmitted 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 sharing a a fork with a 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 healthcare 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.