Myths and misconceptions about HIV and AIDS have been around since the very beginning of the pandemic. The first myths stemmed largely from the lack of information on this relatively new disease. One of the first myths, one that claimed that AIDS was a gay disease only, was strongly encouraged by the media. This exacerbated problems with prevention as misinformation was widely circulated. Since then, new myths have emerged. These myths have emerged despite the fact that there is now more accurate information on HIV. These new myths also create problems with prevention as people unknowingly put themselves at risk to contract the virus.
Myths and Misconceptions about Prevention and Transmission
There are many contemporary myths and misconceptions about HIV prevention and transmission and they originate from many parts of the world. Some are about the demographics of the virus and claim that HIV/AIDS is a Black Person’s Disease only or that it only affects IV drug users. There is also the misconception in parts of Africa that there are young “virgin” prostitutes or special villages free from AIDS. There is also the speculation that HIV/AIDS is worse in Africa because Africans are hypersexual. Others come from theories on the origins of the virus. Some people think that HIV was engineered by the government for the purposes of exterminating Africans, African Americans and homosexuals. Others think that HIV was sent by God as punishment for sin. Other myths and misconceptions are about prevention and transmission. Among these are the misconceptions that only promiscuous people contract HIV, that women cannot transmit HIV to men, that people with HIV look sickly or have body odor, and that HIV does not cause AIDS. One very dangerous misconception about transmission is that two HIV positive people do not need to use condoms during intercourse. This misconception is dangerous because infection with multiple strains of the virus can occur. Paranoia has led to many myths. Some of those myths claim that HIV-Positive criminals are lurking, ready to stab victims, that AIDS can be contracted from a toilet seat, and that hugging an HIV-infected person will lead to infection. People also believe that HIV can be transmitted through kissing, or eating from the plate of an infected person.
A recent article documented a very popular myth among prostitutes in Malaysia. According to Sarawak AIDS Network, or SAN, “prostitutes and their customers shake up a can of coca cola and spray their genitals before sex”. The belief is that the bubbles in the soda will kill the virus. Dr. Andrew Kiyu, a SAN member, said that this myth likely emerged because people have seen doctors use detergent to cleanse the wounds of patients. Other myths have emerged based on current information about HIV/AIDS. As a result of scientists saying that HIV can be transmitted to women via bruises within the vagina, one popular myth states that if sexual intercourse can take place without bruises through which the virus can gain entry into the blood stream, infection will not occur. Some people believe that HIV cannot be contracted from getting tattoos and body piercings based on the fact that HIV is unlikely to be transmitted via kissing. Another myth, this time based on the knowledge of false-positives and false-negatives in testing, states that you can test negative once you’ve tested HIV-positive.
Myths and Misconceptions about a Cure
Other myths and misconceptions come from ideas about possible cures for HIV. People from diverse religious backgrounds believe that there are lucky charms, magic potions, or special rituals that can be used to prevent or cure the virus. There are also many proclaimed herbal and chemical cures; some include armenicum, colloidal silver, tetrasil, and virodene. Others think that taking ‘Immune Boosters’ or vitamins can cure AIDS. Some South Africans believe that a product called Ubhejane that is sold in pharmacies is a cure for AIDS. The creator of Ubhejane, Zeblon Gwala, says that it reduces viral load and increases CD4 counts in HIV positive people. Despite the fact that scientists have tested Ubhejane in the lab and found that it demonstrates minimal benefits, Ubhejane continues to sell.
Image Courtesy of Avert. “The fake AIDS cure Ubhejane on sale in a South African pharmacy.”
Other myths stem from celebrities and their HIV/AIDS status. Because some celebrities, like Magic Johnson and Andrew Stimpson, have been diagnosed with HIV and have not yet developed AIDS after a number of years, another popular myth is that there is a cure, but only rich people know about it because they can afford it.
One very popular myth that often leads to violence against women and young children is the myth of virgin cleansing. In parts of Africa it is widely believed that having sexual intercourse with a virgin will cure HIV. The belief is so widespread that leaders have launched campaigns to dispel it. In Zambia, billboards that depict small children and state that sex with them doesn’t cure AIDS have been placed in many areas.
Image Courtesy of Avert. “A road sign in Zambia confronting the "virgin AIDS cure myth."
In addition to this myth of virgin cleansing, is the myth of animal cleansing or specifically, that having sex with animals will cure HIV. People have also ingested and injected hydrogen peroxide because some alternative health practitioners have advocated it as a cure for HIV.
Problems with Prevention
These and other myths lead many people to expose themselves to HIV despite information that proves the contrary. This creates problems in the endeavor to curtail the spread of the virus. Though many of these myths are popular and affect those in the developing world, some of them do pose problems in the United States. Sex workers in different countries who, because of poverty, cannot switch their profession in the face of the AIDS pandemic may rely on some of these myths. Addicted drug users, who frequently encounter contaminated needles, may rely on some of these myths. The naïve adolescent who may be about to engage in sexual intercourse for the first time, may rely on some of these myths. There are present efforts in place to dispel these myths and most of the initiatives take the form of websites. However, more efforts are required before all of these myths and misconceptions are finally put to rest.