The Daily Tar Heel
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The Daily Tar Heel

On a routine trip to Wal-Mart, I found myself on an aisle with a rather loud woman on a cellphone. For those of us who frequent Wal-Mart, this is no surprise. She was discussing the recent actions of one of her friends when she screeched, “She needs to stop making out with guys at the club. She gonna catch AIDS or something.”

I put down my moderately priced soap. This comment really made me think about HIV stigmas and myths. With this in mind, I felt it would be a good idea to do some HIV myth-busting.

Many people believe that HIV and AIDS are the same thing. Contrary to the belief of the woman in Wal-Mart, this is not the truth. Human Immunodeficieny Virus, or HIV, is a virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the final and most severe stage of HIV infection, diagnosed by a collection of illness and/or a certain CD4 T cell count. These are the cells that serve as the reservoir for HIV. Knowing the difference between the two is a very important part of understanding both.

Many worry that HIV can be spread through tears, sweat, saliva, urine or casual contact. The reality is that HIV is transmitted through infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk. HIV can also be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. The most common ways for HIV to be transmitted are through unprotected sexual contact and/or sharing needles with an HIV-positive person.

A common misconception that people use to try to escape from the risk of sexual contact is “I’m safe because I’m in a monogamous relationship.” If you and your partner were not tested for HIV, there is a risk that you can contract HIV from your relationship.

And even if you were tested, if you do not spend 24 hours a day together there is no way to know if both partners are being faithful. Love is not a proven method to stop HIV transmission.

Even if both you and your partner have HIV, it is still not safe to have unprotected sex with one another.

It is possible for one person with HIV to transmit a different strain of HIV to another person with HIV, creating a superinfection. Sexual practices, which transmit HIV, are also shrouded in myth.

HIV experts often hear that HIV can not be spread or contracted through oral sex. If the person performing oral sex has a cut or abrasion in their mouth and comes in contact with HIV-infected bodily fluids, they can become infected with the virus just as they could having unprotected vaginal or anal sex. Using a dental dam or condom during oral sex greatly diminishes this risk.

When myth-busting HIV, the role of sexual orientation cannot be ignored. A persisting misconception from when the infection was first gaining notoriety is that heterosexuals do not get HIV — but the majority of HIV-positive persons worldwide are heterosexual. Risk is not about labels; rather, it’s about behavior. Any person who has unprotected sex with someone whose HIV status is not definitely known is at risk for HIV.

Currently, there are 1.1 million Americans who live with HIV/AIDS, and more than 36 million people worldwide who live with HIV/AIDS.

It is important to know your status. That’s why it is important to get tested, as you may be positive and have no symptoms. You can’t tell by appearance if you or someone else has HIV.

Arguably the largest myth of all is that being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS means that you will die from the infection.
People are living with HIV/AIDS longer today than ever before. Medications, treatment programs and a better understanding of HIV and AIDS allow those who are infected to live healthy and productive lives.

We know more about HIV now than ever, giving us more weapons to fight against this global threat. Ignorance about HIV is almost as dangerous as the infection. Consider yourself empowe(red).

Julian is a first year pharmacy graduate student from Fountain. E-mail him at

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