More than four decades later, HIV remains a major health issue, affecting millions worldwide. The theme for World AIDS Day 2021, “End inequalities. End AIDS” highlights the urgent need to tackle underlying social injustices in order to end AIDS by 2030.
As the world gets on track to end the epidemic, we can make small changes to bring a positive impact in the community. It starts with educating ourselves about HIV and AIDS and addressing stigmatising attitudes that may exist.
Sinar Daily spoke to Infectious Diseases Physician from Hospital Kuala Lumpur and Secretary of Malaysian Society of HIV Medicine (MASHM), Dr Khairil Erwan Khalid on the misconceptions of HIV and AIDS. Here are some of them:
HIV DOESN’T ALWAYS LEAD TO AIDS
Knowing the difference between HIV and AIDS is important because although these two terms are often used interchangeably, they don’t mean the same thing.
HIV, which is short for Human Immunodeficiency Virus is the virus that attacks the body’s immune system, targeting the white blood cells called CD4+.
There is no cure for HIV at the moment but there are treatments to help suppress the virus from replicating further and damaging the body. With medication, it allows people who are HIV positive to live longer, healthier lives.
The analogy is akin to having diabetes, or hypertension. There is no cure for these health conditions, but with the right medication one is able to control their sugar level or blood pressure.
“When a HIV positive person is left untreated, they will be vulnerable to other infections and diseases, leading to an advanced stage of HIV called AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS),” said Dr. Khairil.
“A person with HIV doesn’t necessarily have AIDS, but a person who has AIDS is definitely HIV positive,” he said.
PEOPLE WITH HIV CAN’T GET MARRIED
Women with HIV may feel concerned about the risk of transmission of the virus to their partner or the baby if they plan on starting a family. There is a perception that marriage and having children for people with HIV is out of the question, however that is not true.
“HIV positive people can definitely get married and have children. Even if their partner is negative, they should not be able to surpass the virus to the partner sexually, provided they receive proper treatment,” said Dr. Khairil.
When the mother receives proper treatment, it will reduce the likelihood of the virus being passed on to the baby.
THE WAYS HIV IS SPREAD
It’s not possible to be infected with the virus if you share common items like everyday household items, utensils or food.
“There are only a few ways for HIV spread, such as having unprotected sex with someone who has HIV. Another way is if you are exposed to contaminated blood.
“HIV can also be transmitted from a mother to her baby during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding but this won’t likely be the case if the mother is on HIV treatment.
“Another way be at high risk of getting HIV is if you share needles, syringes or other drug injection equipment with someone that is HIV positive,” said Dr Khairil.
Things like hugging or touching someone with HIV presents no risk to infection.
The awareness on HIV and AIDS is much better now than it was forty years ago, but despite so the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS still exists simply because the disease is often linked to marginalised groups with high risk behavior.
“A person who has HIV doesn’t mean they are associated with high risk behaviour. Some people may be born with it because their mother didn’t seek or receive proper treatment while pregnant.
There are also other cases whereby some women may have gotten it from their husbands, or vice versa.
“The important thing is to not judge someone how they contracted the virus,” said Dr Khairil.
How a person was exposed to the virus is a sensitive piece of information, therefore asking personal questions can elicit painful emotions. When society discriminates a person living with HIV, it leads to a build up of psychological tension, leading them to feel misunderstood and judged. Best thing to do is listen, and offer words of encouragement or support.