1. It’s not all about condoms
First off, people living with HIV can now achieve ‘undetectable’ levels of virus in their body, meaning they cannot pass HIV on. So as long as they are regularly monitored by their doctor who has given them the all clear – they can have sex safely knowing they are ‘untransmittable’ for HIV.
There’s also ‘PrEP’ (pre-exposure prophylaxis), which if taken by an HIV-negative person will virtually eliminate their chances of getting HIV, even if they don’t use a condom.
So if a person is HIV-negative and on PrEP, and their partner is HIV-positive and undetectable – HIV is pretty much covered.
Unfortunately, we’ve haven’t quite got savvy enough to prevent other STIs without condoms, so just be aware of that and get regularly tested.
2. We don’t really say ‘AIDS’ anymore…
With the word ‘AIDS’ comes connotations of wasting away and death. But HIV and AIDS are not the same thing, and the reality is that millions of people are living healthily with HIV.
AIDS used to be a catch-all term for a number of medical conditions related to an unknown virus – what we now know to be HIV. It’s still used medically to define a specific bunch of illnesses that you get if your immune system fails as a result of HIV. But thanks to antiretrovrial treatment, it’s less common for HIV to damage someone’s immune system to the point that these illnesses occur. Some, including the World Health Organization, have actually scrapped the term ‘AIDS’ altogether, instead referring to ‘clinical stage 4’.
But why does it matter? It’s just terminology isn’t it?
The negative imagery associated with AIDS has been really unhelpful in getting people to come forward to test for HIV. Being HIV-positive today doesn’t look like the horrible AIDS deaths heavily imprinted on our minds. With treatment, HIV is now a manageable condition, and AIDS is no longer the reality for the large majority of people living with HIV.
3. HIV, as a virus, is not as tough as you think
Despite its ability to wreak havoc on our immune systems, HIV is actually not as resilient as you think.
First, HIV can only be transmitted by certain bodily fluids. In order to cause infection, these need to reach the blood through skin breaks, cuts or a mucous membrane – such as the lining of the vagina, anus or the mouth – or via direct injection into the bloodstream.
It fairs pretty poorly outside the body too, dying almost instantly. This means you can’t be infected by sharing cutlery, toilet seats or kissing someone – so get smooching.
It also can’t wiggle its way through a condom – as long as it’s used properly.
… and don’t forget about treatment! With existing treatment, we can stop HIV replicating inside the body
4. With treatment, you can live as long as an HIV-negative person
In 1996, thanks to ‘highly active antiretroviral treatment’ (HAART), people who were able to access it saw their health improve dramatically – almost overnight. Scientists found that by combining at least three types of antiretroviral drugs, HIV-associated deaths declined by 60% to 80%.
Fast-forward 20-odd years to 2018 and the prognosis is even better.
People who receive treatment and take it as prescribed can live a long and healthy life. Even better, if people living with HIV are diagnosed early, before the virus has a chance to hurt the immune system too much, then they have every chance of having a near-normal life expectancy.
5. Some people don’t get any ‘symptoms’
Many believe that HIV will have ‘symptoms’ or that the virus will progress quickly. Neither are necessarily true.
After someone is recently infected with HIV, they may experience symptoms that are flu-like, such as a rash or swollen glands – but not everybody does. The only way to know if you have HIV is to get tested.
In fact, the large majority of people don’t notice that anything is wrong with them in these early stages. It is not uncommon for people to live with HIV for up to ten years without realising they are carrying the virus.
However, although they don’t display any external symptoms of HIV, the virus is slowly hurting these people’s immune systems, meaning that without treatment they will eventually get sick. By the time they start displaying symptoms, they are already at a late stage of infection and their immune system is damaged.
That’s why it’s always important to have regular HIV tests if you are sexually active, especially if you are having unprotected sex.
6. The only way to know your status is to get tested
It’s actually very simple. If you think you’re at risk of HIV, go and get tested. There is no other way to know and the whole process is quick, easy and almost always free. It will do a lot to put your mind at ease.
You may have heard it before, but it really is always better to know. Early diagnosis and early treatment mean that you can get on with your life – positively. And if you’re negative, then you can also get on with your life without the ‘what if?’