Tag Archives: Myths about HIV

A Little Lesson in HIV 101

29 Oct

Fight Stigma is a campaign that was started by students at Duke University involved with Know Your Status, a volunteer group dedicated to providing free HIV testing to students in Durham, NC

Fight Stigma is a campaign that was started by students at Duke University involved with Know Your Status, a volunteer group dedicated to providing free HIV testing to students in Durham, NC

Occasionally, I receive questions from friends/twitter followers asking about my work with “AIDs” prevention.

First of all, it’s AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Secondly, I work with HIV prevention. HIV can be transmitted from one person to another. AIDS cannot. The two are not synonymous.

Below is a list of 5 recurring incorrect themes related to HIV, along with a detailed response as to why each statement is incorrect.

5 Myths about HIV/AIDS

1) HIV and AIDS can be used interchangeably. False.

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is the virus that causes AIDS.  HIV and AIDS are not synonymous.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, is a syndrome. To be diagnosed with AIDS, an individual must be HIV-positive AND have a CD4+ T Helper Cell count of 200 or less in his or her body OR be diagnosed with an opportunistic infection.

An HIV-positive diagnosis only means that HIV has entered an individual’s bloodstream and may be living/replicating within an individual’s body.

2) HIV infection is hard to prevent. You can get HIV from toilet seats or kissing/touching someone who is HIV-positive. False.

There are four bodily fluids known to transmit HIV:

  1. Blood
  2. Semen (including pre-ejaculatory fluids)
  3. Vaginal Secretions
  4. Breast Milk

HIV is NOT transmitted through saliva (kissing), sneezing, coughing, or touching. While HIV is contained within saliva, the amount is so minuscule that one would have to drink gallons of saliva infected with HIV in order to contract the virus (which is disgusting!)…same idea goes for urine.

HIV can only be transmitted once the virus enters the bloodstream of a non-infected person through:

  1. Cuts or rips that may be pre-existing or may develop due to friction during unprotected sex
  2. Sharing needles containing contaminated blood
  3. Direct contact with one of the four infected bodily fluids on an open cut or wound of a non-infected person

In order to contract HIV through kissing, an individual who carries the virus must have a cut in his or her mouth and be bleeding. The person who is not infected with HIV must also have an open cut or wound in his/her mouth through which the blood from the infected partner can enter into the bloodstream….otherwise, it’s just not possible!

While HIV may be transmitted through all three types of sex, transmission of HIV via penetrative intercourse is 100% preventable through correct use of condoms. 

3. HIV can be transmitted through mosquitoes, since mosquitoes feed on blood.  False. 

To date, there have been no confirmed cases of HIV infection through mosquito vectors.

While mosquitoes, indeed, feed on blood, they do not inject blood from their previous meal into the next individual they feed on. They inject their saliva (which cannot transmit HIV) into their prey. If a mosquito does feed on the blood of someone is who HIV-positive, the virus will be transferred to the mosquito’s gut where the virus particles will be killed by stomach acid.

Furthermore, the mosquito genome is not comparable to that of the human genome. Mosquitoes do not have CD4+ T helper cells, which are necessary for replication and survival of the virus.

For specific details about the life cycle of HIV: 

Upon entering the bloodstream of a non-infected person, HIV targets CD4+ T helper cells. A CD4+ T helper cell is a white blood cell in the immune system of the human body, responsible for fighting off foreign pathogens in the body, e.g. viruses, bacteria, etc. Specifically, a CD4+ cell 1) secretes cytokines, chemical messengers that alert the body to the presence of foreign pathogens and 2) activates B cells, which are responsible for producing antibodies that fight the presence of infection. When HIV enters a CD4+ T Helper Cell, it copies its genetic material using the machinery of the CD4+ cell, by way of reverse transcription (process by which RNA is converted to DNA for replication). After replication, the new virus leaves the cell via budding, rupturing (“lysing”) the existing CD4+ T Helper Cell in the process, effectively killing the cell. The newly replicated viruses float about the bloodstream in search of new CD4+ T helper cells to repeat the process of replication and cell lysis.

HIV life cyrlce

If HIV is not treated, the virus can continue to kill CD4+ T helper cells in the body, weakening the the body’s immune system and increasing an individual’s susceptibility to other illnesses. Once there are only 200 or less CD4+ T helper cells or an individual has been diagnosed with an opportunistic infection, (s)he is then diagnosed with AIDS.

4. If you have HIV, you’re going to get AIDS and die. Definitely false. 

There is no cure for HIV, however, HIV is not a death sentence! There are plenty of options of HIV medications on the market. These medications, known as anti-retrovirals (ARVs), slow or prevent the replication of HIV in the body through blocking various pathways of HIV replication, including the binding process of HIV to a CD4+ T helper cell or blocking the reverse transcription (replication of HIV’s genetic material).

The potency of anti-retrovirals on the market has become so strong that someone may live for many years being HIV-positive and never be diagnosed with AIDS (ARVs will help to keep viral loads low and CD4+ cell counts high). Sero-discordant couples, in which one partner is HIV-positive while the other partner is HIV-negative, can have a baby together by engaging in unprotected intercourse, and both the non-infected partner and the baby can remain HIV-negative, if medications are taken correctly, as prescribed by a doctor.

5. It’s possible to list AIDS as a cause of death. Not quite. 

To respond to this, let’s briefly review the effect HIV has on the body: HIV enters the bloodstream of an infected person, killing the body’s CD4+ T helper cells, which are responsible for fighting off foreign pathogens in the body. The higher one’s viral load is, the lower his or her CD4+ cell count will become, leading to a weakened, or compromised, immune system.  Someone who has been diagnosed with AIDS has a high viral load and a low CD4+ cell count (200 or below).

A compromised immune system makes the body more susceptible to illnesses. For this reason, someone who is diagnosed with AIDS is not able to fight off common illnesses, such as the cold or pneumonia, when compared to someone whose immune system is not compromised. In this manner, someone with AIDS may die of pneumonia because of his/her body’s inability to fight off the infection due to a weakened immune system, caused by AIDS. So, yes, AIDS indirectly will have played a role in this person’s death, but it would be more correct to state that the person died of “AIDS-related causes” or “AIDS-related pneumonia”, not necessarily AIDS.

Educate yourself! #Fight Stigma

–Rachel Safeek

Email me: rachel.safeek@duke.edu
Twitter: @RachSafeek

HIV Outreach Event for National Coming Out Day

HIV Outreach Event for National Coming Out Day