Time to debunk myths on HIV

It’s been a week since an article detailing my app, Burnd, was published and the response has been overwhelming and humbling. People whom I never had a chance to meet emailed me, opening up about their journey through HIV.

One constant, regardless of whether the email came from Malaysia, Sri Lanka or the US, was the discrimination these people had to endure. We, as a society, have successfully stirred up so much fear and stigma on HIV that it became and remains the biggest impediment in containing the spread of the disease.

Two years ago, a HIV-positive individual who had been on treatment for years and had an undetectable viral load, was denied treatment at a dentist in Kuala Lumpur because according to the dentist, “the virus will get in the air and infect all his other patients”.

Another HIV-positive person who contacted me recounted how afraid he was even to get a HIV test done on himself.

So let’s debunk some of the myths surrounding HIV and hope that fear can be replaced with awareness.

‘HIV discriminates’

This has to be the biggest fallacy ever created. HIV does not discriminate and neither should we. HIV originated from chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys in Africa, where it was known as SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus). It has been theorised that SIV transferred to humans from the killing and eating of chimps or through contact with blood during hunting. As SIV reached the humans, it became what we now know as HIV.

Like many other infectious diseases originating from animals, HIV has specific transmission routes and anyone – male, female, heterosexual or homosexual – deemed “high-risk” can contract it.

So the idea that HIV only affects one subgroup is wrong and dangerous as it stops people from taking the necessary precautions to prevent it from spreading.

‘You can get HIV by sharing space with someone who is HIV-positive’

HIV has specific transmission routes and beyond them, there is no other way HIV can be transmitted. Sharing of needles, unprotected sexual intercourse, mother to child transmission, blood donation and contact between open wounds and HIV-infected blood/body fluids are the primary routes through which a person can get HIV.

There is no evidence to show that a HIV-infected individual needs to be bathed in bleach or wrapped in plastic upon his or her death as practised in some places. So there is nothing to fear about being openly friends with a HIV-positive individual or sharing the same living space with them. They really do need our support and care.

‘HIV is a death sentence’

HIV is no longer a death sentence. With the latest advancements in medicine, the viral load of an individual can be suppressed to the point that they are undetectable, making these people unable to transmit the virus. HIV-positive individuals are able to live a long and relatively healthy life.

They are able to marry, have HIV-negative children and pursue their goals and dreams. Do not let your HIV status be an impediment to your success and do not let that be the reason you give up on living.

There are many new advancements and discoveries within the field of HIV. With concepts like Treatment as Prevention (TasP), Undetectable = Untransmittable, PreP, PEP and safer sex guidelines (i.e. consistent and correct usage of condoms), we have everything.

We need to stop or at least significantly reduce the number of HIV cases, both locally and globally. Let’s work together using evidence-based policies and research to protect the coming generations from the burden of HIV.

Shaik Ashraf is a medical graduate who developed the Burnd app to create awareness about HIV testing and sexual health.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.