14 HIV/AIDS Beliefs—Which Ones Are True?

Saturday marks World AIDS Day. Fight the epidemic simply by being informed.

Crossing out lies in favor of truth
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7. I won't get HIV through oral sex. Transmission is less common than through anal or vaginal sex, but it is still possible whether performing or receiving oral sex, says Weidle.

8. I can get HIV through casual contact or kissing. This belief has persisted from the dawn of the epidemic in the early 1980s. HIV is transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk. You cannot get HIV by shaking hands or hugging, nor can you get it from a toilet seat, drinking fountain, or drinking glasses, says Weidle. HIV does not travel through air or food and cannot live long outside the body. Closed-mouth kissing is also safe, but Weidle notes there have been "extremely rare cases of HIV being transmitted via deep French kissing." In these cases, bleeding gums or sores in the mouth were the conduits.

9. I'm HIV-positive but feel fine. I don't need antiretroviral drugs. "That's very old-fashioned thinking," says Gallant. "Nowadays there's really pretty good evidence that everybody with HIV, or just about everybody, would benefit from treatment in some way." And the point of treatment is to prevent an infected person from getting sick.

10. HIV-positive mothers pass the virus on to their babies. While the CDC estimates that mothers who aren't on antiretroviral treatment have a 25 percent chance of passing the infection on to a newborn, faithful drug therapy during the pregnancy can drop that to 2 percent or less. Women with HIV and AIDS can still have children.

11. I can't get HIV through tattoos or body piercing. If a tattoo parlor or piercing place doesn't sterilize its equipment properly, the virus could inadvertently be transmitted. Tools that cut the skin should be used only once and then either thrown away or sterilized, the CDC recommends, and a new needle should be used on each client. Before getting a tattoo or piercing, ask what steps the shop takes to prevent HIV and other infections, such as hepatitis B or C.

[See The CDC Wants Baby Boomers Tested for Hepatitis C: Now What?]

12. I'm too young to get HIV. Au contraire, young adults ages 13 to 24 account for more than a quarter of all new HIV infections, according to a CDC report published this month. About 60 percent of those infected either don't know it or aren't being treated, which means they may be transmitting the virus to others.

13. HIV isn't that serious anymore. Many people think that since it doesn't flash across the front pages as much it's no longer a big deal, says Hagen. "It absolutely is. It's still here, it's still serious, and we don't have a cure for it."

14. Eliminating AIDS is a futile mission. Yes, the outlook sometimes appears grim. But a recent report from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) shows a promising development: New HIV infections have dropped 50 percent across 25 countries, and worldwide, AIDS-related deaths fell by more than 25 percent between 2005 and 2011.

Updated on 11/28/12: This story was originally published on December 1, 2010.