HIV has historically been a source of misinformation, stigmatisation and fear. For many, this was a result of harrowing media campaigns from the 1980s that overtly shaped the public’s schema of HIV. In the U.K, the Daily Mail and the News of the World commonly referred to the virus as a “gay plague”, whilst The Sun published a story about how a Vicar would shoot his son if he contracted AIDS. These harmful, insensitive and dehumanising representations of HIV and HIV Positive individuals have only maintained inaccurate and damaging beliefs about HIV, and are still seen today. Last year, American rapper DaBaby faced backlash, after comments he made at a concert. During a performance at Rolling Loud festival, he told the audience to put their cell phones up, except if they have HIV or AIDs. He also reportedly said that HIV “will make you die in 2 to 3 weeks” – which is obviously factually incorrect.

In order to help people to understand AIDS and HIV better, we caught up with leading doctor, Dr Steve Taylor (FRCP, PhD) to myth-bust some of the most common misconceptions he hears. Not only is Dr. Steve the Lead HIV Consultant at Birmingham’s Heartlands Hospital and Honorary Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham; he is also the West Midlands media representative for the British Association of Sexual Health and HIV and regularly appears on television and radio to comment on issues pertaining to sexual health and HIV.

“Education remains the single most important protection against HIV: understand the virus, fight stigma, and get tested. It will make us all safer.”

– Dr Steve Taylor, Leading HIV Consultant at Birmingham’s Heartlands Hospital

Myth 1: Only men who have sex with men or people who inject drug can acquire HIV

Dr. Steve Taylor responds:

“FALSE. Anyone who has sex without a condom with someone living with HIV and whose virus levels are not suppressed by effective treatment can acquire HIV.  In fact, new HIV diagnoses in heterosexual people are now higher than they are among men who have sex with men.”

Myth 2: You can catch HIV through kissing via saliva

Dr. Steve Taylor responds:

“FALSE. HIV is present in the blood and genital secretions of a person living with HIV. There are proteins in saliva that ‘inactivate’ or kill the virus so you cannot pass it on through saliva i.e. through kissing or sharing a cup with somebody living with HIV. 

“Transmission most commonly comes about through sexual intercourse without a condom with somebody who is living with HIV and is unaware that they are carrying the virus. You cannot acquire HIV by having sex with a person living with HIV who is on effective treatment.”

Myth 3: HIV is a death sentence

Dr. Steve Taylor responds:

“FALSE. Today’s amazing medicines mean that someone living with HIV can expect a normal life expectancy, as long as they are diagnosed early so they can receive effective treatment. To access treatment, people need to get tested. The worst health outcomes are associated with late diagnosis – so taking that test is so important!”

Myth 4: HIV and AIDS are the same thing

Dr. Steve Taylor responds:

FALSE. HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and occurs when someone living with HIV does not receive treatment and their immune system begins to break down. Eventually this then fails to protect the person from infections that would not usually cause them trouble.

“When a person develops one of these infections, they are said to have developed an ‘AIDS defining illness’. In the past – so over 20 years ago – having an AIDS defining illness meant you had a very short life expectancy and many people died from these infections, as there was no effective HIV treatment at that time. Today, we tend to use the terms ‘early-stage HIV’ and ‘late-stage HIV’. Modern medicines can prevent people from ever reaching late-stage HIV, so that they will never develop an AIDS defining infection. Therefore, the people who do develop such infections now are those that are not tested so present to hospital very late.”

Myth 5: HIV isn’t something that we need to worry about anymore

Dr. Steve Taylor responds:

FALSE. HIV is still very much with us and continues to spread in the community. In 2021, for example, 2,955 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in the UK. Some of these people were diagnosed very late – because they had not taken a test earlier – and this meant they became sicker than they needed to.

“But the good news is that today’s life-saving treatment also ensures that people living with the virus cannot pass it on to their sexual partners. This is known as U = U (Undetectable = Untransmittable). Today’s medicines suppress a person’s virus levels so effectively that they cannot pass on the virus during sex. This means that if we all do more to think about HIV, fight stigma, and ensure people get tested, we can stop HIV in its tracks. Right now, though, there’s still a lot more work to do.”

Myth 6: Condoms are the only protection you have against acquiring HIV during sex

Dr. Steve Taylor responds:

“FALSE. There are other things you can do to protect against HIV. The first is to get tested, and – if possible – encourage your partner to get tested as well. If either one of you has HIV then you can take the treatment that means you won’t pass on the virus on to sexual partners. This is known as U = U or (Undetectable = Untransmittable). Today’s medicines can suppress a person’s virus levels so effectively that they cannot pass on the virus during sex. This only applies if a person knows they are HIV positive and are on treatment.

“Most new HIV infections in the UK happen through condomless sex with a person who does not know they have HIV. It doesn’t occur from people who are positive and on effective treatment. People who are HIV-negative can also protect themselves by using what is known as PrEP – Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. This is an HIV medication that is usually taken daily. If it’s taken reliably, it is very effective at preventing HIV transmission from an person living with HIV who either does not know their diagnosis or whose virus levels are not suppressed by treatment. If you think you are at high risk of acquiring HIV you can ask about PrEP at your local sexual health clinic.”

For more information about HIV, you can visit the Saving Lives website here.

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