HIV/AIDS


Fact or Fiction: HIV/AIDS
Sure, we’ve heard of HIV/AIDS. It’s officially been around since 1981. But what exactly is it? How would we know if we had it? And how likely is it that we could get it?

Read the story of Jessica Whitbread, a 26-year-old living with HIV in the March issue of FLARE.

• HIV is just another name for AIDS. Fact or fiction?

• Everyone who has HIV is sick. Fact or fiction?

• HIV is a gay-male disease. Fact or fiction?

• You know if you have HIV. Fact or fiction?

• You can get HIV from oral sex. Fact or fiction?

• HIV can be transmitted through saliva, sweat or urine. Fact or fiction?

• Your risk of HIV increases with age. Fact or fiction?

• HIV can be prevented. Fact or fiction?

• Medication can slow down the effects of HIV and AIDS. Fact or fiction?

• An “invisible condom” is being developed to prevent the spread of HIV. Fact or fiction?

• There is a cure for HIV/AIDS. Fact or fiction?

• HIV/AIDS is a death sentence. Fact or fiction?

• It is no big deal to get HIV/AIDS. Fact or fiction?

HIV is just another name for AIDS.

FICTION

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). You can be infected with HIV and not have AIDS. Once HIV makes its way into your body, it launches an attack on your immune system. Over time, the virus weakens your immunity to infection. It’s like flu season lasts year-round, and you start catching every nasty bug floating through the mall and on the subway. HIV progresses into AIDS when you get really sick with a severe infection such as pneumonia or meningitis. AIDS is the advanced stages of HIV.

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Everyone who has HIV is sick.

FICTION

You can live with HIV for 8-10 years without showing any sign of the virus. Initial symptoms such as a fever and chills probably won’t have you running to your doctor; you could just assume you’ve got the flu. Then there are the more noticeable side effects, such as weight loss, skin rashes and short-term memory loss. Once HIV develops into AIDS, symptoms can become debilitating. You may suffer from loss of vision, severe diarrhea and seizures.

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HIV is a gay-male disease.

FICTION

Women are one of the fastest growing groups diagnosed with HIV, making up a large number of the world’s estimated 38.6 million infected people. There are 58,000 Canadians living with HIV, and 20 percent are women, according to the Aug. 1, 2006, Canada Communicable Disease Report. Women represented 27 percent of all new infections in 2005, according to the report. In 2002 in the United States, HIV was the leading cause of death for African-American women aged 25-34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. HIV was the sixth leading cause of death among all women aged 25-34, according to 2002 stats from the CDC. “It’s a public health crisis,” says Dr. Mona Loutfy, HIV and infectious disease specialist at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. “It’s no longer just a homosexual disease; it’s also a heterosexual disease.”

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You know if you have HIV.

FICTION

It’s just like wondering if you’re pregnant. You might not look any different and your instincts might sway you to believe you know the answer, but it’s all just a guessing game until you get tested. A blood test will reveal if you’re HIV positive. Visit your family doctor or a clinic that does anonymous HIV testing.

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You can get HIV from oral sex.

FACT

Although unprotected anal and vaginal sex have higher rates of HIV transmission, oral sex still carries some risk of transmission, as HIV travels through blood and bodily fluids. Semen carrying HIV can enter the body through a cut in your mouth, infecting you with the virus. The most common way of contracting HIV is having sex with someone who has the virus. Intravenous drug users can also get HIV if they share needles with someone who is infected. Pregnant women can pass HIV on to their babies if they don’t take the necessary precautions.

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HIV can be transmitted through saliva, sweat or urine.

FICTION

If you sit on a toilet seat that someone with HIV has peed on, you won’t get the virus. You can’t catch HIV from using an infected person’s straw. “HIV is not transmitted casually, by shaking hands, sharing food or kissing,” says Dr. Chris Archibald, director of the surveillance and risk-assessment division within the Public Health Agency of Canada. “There is a very slight risk associated with ‘wet kissing’ if there is blood in the mouth of one or both partners [infected with HIV].”

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Your risk of HIV increases with age.

FICTION

HIV is spreading quickest among women aged 16-24. No matter how old you are, or if you know the person you’re having sex with, you can still get HIV if they’re infected with the virus. Don’t assume your partner is HIV-free just because he’s only slept with a few women. You can have sex with someone once who is HIV positive and get infected.

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HIV can be prevented.

FACT

The easiest way to protect yourself against HIV is by using condoms during sex. The birth control pill or a diaphragm does not protect you against HIV. Make sure you and your partner get tested for HIV before having unprotected sex. If pregnant women take medication during pregnancy, possibly deliver their baby by caesarian section and not breastfeed, their risk of passing HIV to their baby is reduced from 25 percent to less than one percent, says Dr. Loutfy. All pregnant women should be tested for HIV, even if they don’t feel they’re at risk. By testing only drug users, sex workers and women from countries with high instances of HIV, we are missing 50 percent of HIV cases in pregnant women who are infected, says Dr. Loutfy.

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Medication can slow down the effects of HIV and AIDS.

FACT

HIV spreads and gets stronger by making copies of itself in the body. Anti-retroviral drugs stop HIV from replicating and killing your healthy immune cells. This gives the immune system some time to recover and start producing white blood cells that fight infection.

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An “invisible condom” is being developed to prevent the spread of HIV.

FACT

Microbicides are chemical agents that protect against sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. They come in the form of a gel, cream, film or suppository and are applied inside the vagina or rectum so that the transmission of HIV between partners is halted. Microbicides are now being tested on humans, and could be at your drugstore in 5-7 years.

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There is a cure for HIV/AIDS.

FICTION

Like diabetes, HIV carriers can be treated with medication, but they cannot be cured. Once you are infected with the virus, you have it for life. For decades, scientists have been trying to create a vaccine against HIV. The problem is, “the virus mutates all the time. It is a target that is always changing,” says Mark Wainberg, director of the McGill University AIDS Centre in Montreal and co-chair of AIDS 2006, a biennial international AIDS conference. So scientists can’t figure out how to kill an enemy that is constantly reappearing as something else. We are probably at least a decade away from a vaccine, says Wainberg.

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HIV/AIDS is a death sentence.

FICTION

HIV is a chronic infection that can be treated and managed by medication. “People are not going to die from their HIV,” says Dr. Loutfy. “With the medical treatment available now for HIV, they will die from other medical causes,” such as an AIDS-related cardiovascular disease.

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It is no big deal to get HIV/AIDS.

FICTION

Once you get HIV, you have it forever. You can’t take back that one night of unprotected sex. Even though HIV won’t likely kill you, your life will never be the same. You’ll have to take heavy doses of medication with serious side effects. You are a public health risk, so you can’t have unprotected sex, says Dr. Loutfy. And you will have to live forever with a chronic disease. HIV/AIDS changes your life. Knowing what Wainberg knows of the devastating condition, he says, “People aren’t scared enough of HIV.”

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