In the days since Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas revealed he has HIV, there’s been a surge in people wanting to educate themselves about the virus, a leading charity has said.
“We have seen a sharp increase in the number of people accessing information about HIV from our website and THT Direct telephone service,” said Ian Green, chief executive at Terrence Higgins Trust. “There’s been a big jump in traffic accessing details about effective treatment which means people living with HIV – just like Gareth - can’t pass it on.”
The charity has also seen an increase in the number of people ordering HIV self-test kits from their website, Green said.
While the public reaction to Thomas’ announcement has been overwhelmingly positive, the circumstances in which he disclosed his HIV status are a stark reminder of the shame and stigma that still surrounds HIV.
The former Wales captain revealed he’d chosen to share his status publicly because people had tried to blackmail him, by threatening to reveal his HIV status before he was ready to. He also revealed a journalist disclosed his status to his parents, before he had told them himself.
HIV stigma makes life harder for those diagnosed as HIV-positive and also spreads misinformation, which can increase transmission and dissuade people from being tested. To continue Thomas’ work in ending misconceptions, here are five myths about HIV – and the facts you need to learn instead.
Myth 1: Everyone living with HIV can pass on the virus.
There is clear scientific evidence that people on effective HIV treatment can’t pass the virus on, but misconceptions persist.
In a survey of more than 2,000 Brits conducted by the the Terrence Higgins Trust in July 2019, 41% of Brits said they believe everyone living with HIV can pass on the virus.
In reality, science has progressed far faster than public knowledge. HIV is now treated with antiretroviral medications, known as antiretroviral therapy (ART) or highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), which work by stopping the virus replicating in the body.
This can reduce the amount of virus in a person’s blood and within six months of starting medication, infection in most cases will be so low that it’s at undetectable levels.
At this point the disease is known as “undetectable equals untransmittable” or U=U, meaning it cannot be passed on to another person.
A landmark study called PARTNER looked at 888 gay and straight couples (and 58,000 sex acts) where one partner was HIV positive and one was HIV negative. Results found that where the HIV positive partner was on treatment and had an undetectable viral load, there were no cases of HIV transmission whether they had anal or vaginal sex without a condom.
Myth 2: HIV only affects gay men.
HIV can affect anyone regardless of their gender or sexuality. In fact, the latest data from Public Health England suggests around a quarter of people diagnosed with HIV are women.
In 2018, 4,363 people were newly diagnosed with HIV (3,279 men and 1,203 women). Among the men diagnosed, 1,908 identified as gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.
Misconceptions about who is affected by HIV can make life more difficult for the newly diagnosed.
“I thought I was the only woman in London with HIV,” Angelina Namiba, who was diagnosed in 1993, previously told HuffPost UK. “All the images I saw were men.”
Myth 3: People with HIV can’t have children.
Amanda Mammadova, from Milton Keynes in the UK, said when she was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 30 she was worried she would not have a relationship or children.
“My initial thought was: am I going to die? And am I going to die alone? Who is going to want me,” she previously told HuffPost UK. “I’m going to be single forever I need to go and buy 100 cats from somewhere and a cardigan. Within 10 years I’ll be dead.”
But she now has three children, and has been married and divorced. Women with HIV can have healthy pregnancies and give birth to babies without passing on the infection.
“If you are taking HIV treatment and your viral load is undetectable, the risk of HIV being passed on to your baby is just 0.1%, or one in a thousand,” according to the HIV charity NAM.
Doctors may recommend additional precautions such as having a caesarean rather than a vaginal birth and not breastfeeding, depending on your individual viral load.
Myth 4: HIV can be passed on through kissing and other contact.
Almost half of Brits (48%) say they would feel “uncomfortable” kissing someone living with HIV, according to Terrence Higgins Trust survey. In addition, 38% said they would feel ‘uncomfortable’ going on a date with someone who is living with HIV.
The charity wants to stress that there is no risk of getting HIV through kissing, sharing utensils or other day-to-day contact. This kind of misinformation increases stigma for those who are HIV positive and may also dissuade people from getting tested.
“It is so important to remove the fear associated with HIV if we are to reach zero new HIV transmissions by 2030 – which the UK government has committed to doing – so more people can come forward and get tested,” commented Ian Green.
Myth 5: HIV is a ‘death sentence’.
Gareth Thomas admitted that in the immediate aftermath of his diagnosis, he thought HIV was all “darkness and death”.
“I had no knowledge of living with HIV, only those adverts in the 80s with tombstones and death,” he told The Mirror.
But now he is raising awareness of the fact it is possible to live a full and happy life after a HIV diagnosis.
Thanks to advances in treatment over the past 20 years, life expectancy for someone who is living with HIV on effective treatment “is no different to the general population”, says the NHS.