Debunking the Myths about HIV/AIDS
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Misinformation can be dangerous - make sure you are informed and aware of these myths about HIV/AIDS.

There are some truly damaging myths circulating within communities about HIV and how to avoid infection. This false information is misleading and destructive; and should be counteracted in our society by means of intensive public education.

Here are some of the most commonly believed myths:


Taking Immune Boosters or Vitamins Can Cure AIDS

There is no known cure for HIV/AIDS. While taking the correct doses of vitamin supplements, along with eating healthily, exercising, not smoking and drinking in moderation can help keep one healthier for longer, large doses of vitamins or immune boosters can compromise one's health.

When an HIV-positive person develops AIDS (in South Africa this is officially diagnosed when one's CD4 count drops to below 200), Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) can help to prolong one's life. However, antiretroviral therapy is not a cure for AIDS.

You Can Test Negative Once You've Tested HIV-Positive

Successful antiretroviral treatment, often in the form of Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART), can render HIV undetectable, meaning that the amount of HIV in the blood is so low that viral load tests cannot detect it. This does not mean that an HIV-positive person becomes HIV-negative. The HIV is still present in the body. A procedure like "blood washing", in which a person's HIV-infected blood is replaced with uninfected blood, could never be successful because the virus "hides" in the lymph nodes, gastrointestinal tract, testes, brain, liver and every other organ in the body and would simply use "new" HIV-negative blood to replicate itself once again. There is a myth that American basketball star Magic Johnson tested HIV-negative after he tested positive in 1991. This is simply not true. He is doing well on treatment and his viral load is undetectable, but he is still HIV-positive.

Mosquitoes Can Transmit HIV/AIDS

Mosquitoes cannot transmit HIV or AIDS. Mosquitoes do not inject the blood of other people they have bitten into new people they bite. Mosquitoes can, however, spread other serious diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. Humans cannot catch HIV/AIDS from any insects or animals such as monkeys, spiders or snakes. Only humans can carry the virus.

Condoms Don't Work

If used consistently (in other words, every time one engages in sex) and correctly, condoms are almost 100% effective. Human error introduces the risk of transmission - for example, if one doesn't use a condom all the time, or if the condom breaks because it has been stored incorrectly, is past its expiry date, or not enough of the correct lubricant is used. Condoms only break if used incorrectly. Latex condoms provide a barrier to micro-organisms, including HIV, so it is untrue that condoms have "holes" in them which allow HIV to pass through.

Source: The Body: Basic Facts About Condoms and Their Use (also includes tips on how to use a condom correctly)

Having Sex With a Virgin Will Cure HIV

The idea that having sex with a virgin will cure venereal disease has been around for a long time - long before the advent of HIV/AIDS (since at least Victorian times, according to www.snopes.com, a site dedicated to refuting urban legends, and since the 16th century, according to one Wikipedia entry). While the media may at times perpetuate the idea that there is, in fact, a widespread myth that having sex with a virgin will cure HIV, there is some evidence of ordinary people actually believing this, and acting on it. In a 2003 paper, University of the Transkei researcher BL Meel found that at least one nine-year-old child in the Transkei area in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, had been raped as a result of this mistaken belief.

Reference: Meel BL (2003) 1. The myth of child rape as a cure for HIV/AIDS in Transkei: a case report. Med. Sci. Law43, 85-88 PMID 12627683

HIV/AIDS Is Bad in Africa Because Africans are Hypersexual

There is no evidence to support the claim that African sexual practices are any more deviant or abnormal than any other group of people. This well worn and rather tired stereotype resides in the Anglo-American imagery of African sexuality more than anything else. Many factors fuel the pandemic in this region, including poverty, lack of adequate health-care infrastructure, the failure of the international community to react in a timely manner to the pandemic and lack of political will. In addition, HIV 1 subtype C is the most prevalent strain of the HI virus in this region, which in itself is responsible for half of infections worldwide. There is evidence to support the claim that this strain is much more efficiently transmitted through heterosexual sex. Thus, myriad social, economic, political and biomedical factors contribute to the severity of the pandemic in this region.

HIV Was Invented to Get Rid of Black People and Homosexuals

The idea that HIV was invented by humans deliberately, to get rid of black people and homosexuals, is widely regarded as a conspiracy theory. The evidence to support this claim is tenuous at the best and people who believe it disregard the evidence of the similarities between Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) that occurs in apes and HIV, as well as the fact that the first cases of HIV have been traced back to 1959, a time when the technology was simply not available to engineer HIV. The most credible origin theory is that SIV jumped species from chimpanzees being hunted and killed, either through being eaten or blood transference through cuts and wounds sustained by hunters. In some cases the hunters would have been able to fight off SIV, but in others it would have mutated into a specific strain of HIV. See www.avert.org for more details.

HIV-Positive Criminals are Lurking, Ready to Stab Victims with Injections

There is a popular urban legend, which has been around for some time, which recounts the tale of someone innocent being infected unknowingly by a cruel and ruthless HIV-positive person, out of sheer spite.

Different versions of this legend have a friend of a friend (or someone equally faceless yet seemingly close) being infected by a needle pinprick inflicted by an unknown assailant while innocuously walking on a street or sitting in a movie theatre (see urbanlegends.about.com for more details). Another version of it has a man or woman enjoying a one-night-stand with someone they meet in a bar, only to be met by an empty bed and a note next morning, which reads, "Welcome to the world of AIDS!"

In fact, about 90% of HIV-infections are caused by unprotected heterosexual sex. Mother-to-child-transmission (MTCT) is statistically the next biggest cause of HIV-infection, while transmission by blood transfusion is miniscule in comparison. Transmission by any type of needle-stick injury is statistically negligible. However, doctors, other health-care professionals such as dentists and others who are mistakenly pierced by needles potentially infected with HIV-positive blood can, like rape victims, undergo a short course of emergency ARV-treatment as soon after the incident as possible. This emergency treatment reduces the chance of infection significantly.

HIV/AIDS Is a Black Person's Disease Only

All race groups in South Africa are susceptible to HIV/AIDS. According to the respected South African National HIV Prevalence Incidence Behaviour and Communication Survey, 2005, commissioned by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a total of 10.8% of South Africans were infected with HIV. That said, statistically many more Africans are infected than other races. Infections across racial categories were broken down as follows:

  • Total: 10.8%
  • African 13.3%
  • White 0.6%
  • Coloured 1.9%
  • Indian 1.6%
The same study notes that infection rates are highest in South Africa's poorest communities, in informal rural and urban settlements, where statistically more African people live than whites, coloureds or Indians. It can therefore also be argued that HIV/AIDS generally impacts more heavily on the poor than the rich.

Source: South African National HIV Prevalence Incidence Behaviour and Communication Survey, 2005

HIV Doesn't Cause AIDS

There is overwhelming and compelling evidence to support the thesis that HIV causes AIDS. The band of dissident scientists (or "denialists"), who do not believe that HIV causes AIDS, are in fact a tiny minority in comparison to those who support orthodox science. Unfortunately their views have been disseminated and popularised by the media as some sort of a credible alternative to orthodox science and they have also used the Internet to further their agenda.

Denialists like vitamin promoter Matthias Rath denounce ARVs and propagate the use of high dosages of vitamin supplements as an alternative, but there is no credible evidence to support his claims.

For more examples of urban legends and popular misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, see Wikipedia's page entitled "Common misconceptions about HIV and AIDS".

This information has been provided by Journ-AIDS - a website developed to help journalists report on HIV/AIDS issues. The website is maintained by the HIV/AIDS and the Media Project at the University of the Witwatersrand.