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8 dangerous HIV myths debunked by the experts

Experts debunk misconceptions surrounding HIV

Susie East | 12/1/2015, 9 a.m.
HIV/AIDS is one of the highest profile diseases of our times, but many of us are still ignorant about key ...
1984 Scanning electron micrograph of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Cynthia Goldsmith/CDC

HIV/AIDS is one of the highest profile diseases of our times, but many of us are still ignorant about key aspects of the illness, how it works and how to live with it.

HIV has killed an estimated 39 million people to date, but making it more dangerous are the misunderstandings and stigmas that surround it. We asked experts to debunk some of the most prevalent and damaging myths about HIV. This is what they said.

Myth: If you are infected with HIV, you'll know about it.

It can take many years for symptoms of HIV to show up, which means you could be carrying the disease for a long time without experiencing any warning signs.

"In the average adult it takes between eight to 10 years for someone who is HIV positive to show signs that they're infected and ill, so it's almost impossible for people to tell if someone has HIV early on," says Owen Ryan, executive director of the International AIDS Society.

This means it's extremely important to be checked for the virus if you are sexually active. And of course, using a condom correctly every time you have sex can greatly reduce the chance of becoming infected.

Myth: If you have HIV you don't need to start drug therapy until you get very sick.

The WHO recommends that people who are newly infected start treatment early on to protect their immune system. The treatment involves antiretroviral therapy (ART), which means taking drugs every day to suppress the virus in your body.

"There is a dramatic impact on a person's health and well-being throughout their life if they start HIV treatment immediately," explains Ryan.

"And it's not just for them, it's for their families and partners as well. People who are on HIV treatment who are responding well to treatment, they are 96% less likely to pass on HIV to their partners."

Myth: We don't need to worry about HIV anymore.

Just because we have made huge leaps in battling HIV over the past few decades, it doesn't mean we should become complacent, argues Ryan.

"I think the biggest myth is that HIV is no longer a problem," he says. "What I find a lot in my job is that a lot of people think that HIV is a problem of 10 years ago.

"I don't think people know that there were 1.2 million deaths to AIDS in 2014. If more people knew that they'd be shocked. Six hundred children a day are infected with HIV; that's just an outrageous statistic.

"I think we've moved into a period of apathy which we really have to push against. So the big myth that HIV is over is far from true."

Myth: If you are pregnant and HIV positive your baby will always be infected.

If a pregnant woman is HIV positive the baby will not necessarily become infected. Even without treatment the chance of the baby acquiring the disease is about 25-33%, according to professor Salim Abdool Karim, director of the Center for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA).