TV sexpert Sarah Mulindwa busts the most common HIV myths

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More than 40 years have passed since the first HIV cases were reported.

Since then, there have been many advances in prevention, care and treatment, but there’s still a long way to go when it comes to beating the confusion and stigma that surrounds the virus.

Tackle HIV, a campaign led by former rugby international Gareth Thomas, carried out a survey to mark thsi week’s HIV Testing Week.

It revealed that around one in five of us (17 per cent) still believe a ­diagnosis is a death sentence, almost half (44 per cent) wouldn’t tell loved ones if they tested positive, while 51 per cent said they wouldn’t even consider taking an HIV test in the first place.

Sarah Mulindwa, NHS nurse, sexual health expert and presenter of E4’s The Sex Clinic, thinks it’s time we dispelled some common myths.

Sarah Mulindwa says there is still much confusion about HIV (Image: Sarah Mulindwa)

Myth 1: I don’t need to get tested. I’m not at risk of HIV

“This is something I hear surprisingly often, but the truth is, HIV doesn’t discriminate – anyone can contract the virus,” says Sarah. “It’s true that some groups are more at risk than others, but in England, more heterosexual and bisexual people are now diagnosed with HIV each year than gay men. That means the only way to know your HIV status for sure is to get tested.

“The good news is that it is getting easier to test for HIV. You can go to a clinic or simply order a free kit at freetesting.hiv and take the test in the comfort of your own home.

“It’s so easy – there’s no excuse not to know your status.

“HIV attacks the immune system and stays in the body for life, but treatment can keep the virus under control and the immune system healthy. Without ­medication, people with HIV can develop AIDS, when the immune system can no longer fight infections, which is why getting tested early if you’ve been at risk of HIV is important.

“It will allow you to access ­treatment that can prevent you ever developing AIDS. Currently in England, a worrying 44 per cent of people are diagnosed late, which can reduce treatment options.

“Remember, knowledge is power and understanding your HIV status empowers you to make informed decisions about your health.”

Young woman doing finger-prink blood test at home

Young woman doing finger-prink blood test at home (Image: Getty)

Myth 2: If I get HIV, I will die soon

“The good news is this is no longer true,” reassures Sarah. “While there’s no cure for HIV, there are very effective treatments that enable most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life.

“In fact, a 20 year old starting effective HIV treatment is now likely to have a near normal life expectancy, which is why it’s more important than ever to know your HIV status.”

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Myth 3: If I have HIV I will pass it to my partner

“Thanks to breakthroughs in medical treatment, it is now possible to prevent passing the virus on through sexual contact,” says Sarah.

“Although 49 per cent of people surveyed said they believed someone with the virus will pass it to their other half, even while on medication, the truth is that those with HIV who consistently take ­antiretroviral therapy (which stops the virus replicating in the body) will have an undetectable viral load, and undetectable equals untransmittable, meaning it cannot be passed on.”

“The Tackle HIV survey discovered that 19 per cent of people said they would not play a contact sport if one of their opponents had HIV, with 18 per cent saying they would but would feel uncomfortable doing so. But UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, says there is no evidence that HIV can be transmitted while playing a sport.”

Tackle HIV, a campaign led by Gareth Thomas in partnership with ViiV Healthcare and the Terrence Higgins Trust, aims to tackle the stigma and misunderstanding around HIV.

To mark HIV Testing Week, Sarah Mulindwa will be joining Gareth and a panel of speakers from sport, media, advocacy, health and science tomorrow to discuss the importance of HIV testing, the impact of stigma and the power that sport has to positively influence behaviour change. You can find out more at tacklehiv.org or on Instagram @tacklehiv

The facts about HIV

HIV is found in semen, blood, vaginal and anal fluids and breast milk

You cannot get HIV from:

  • Kissing
  • Hugging
  • Shaking hands
  • Sharing a space with someone
  • Sharing a toilet
  • Sharing household items such as cups, plates, cutlery or bed linen
  • Any other general social contact

You can get HIV through:

  • Heterosexual and homosexual sex without a condom
  • Sharing drug-injecting equipment
  • Sharing sex toys
  • Mother-to-child transmission

HIV is found in semen, blood, vaginal and anal fluids and breast milk

You cannot get HIV from:

Kissing

Hugging

Shaking hands

Sharing a space with someone

Sharing a toilet

Sharing household items such as cups, plates, cutlery or bed linen

Any other general social contact

You can get HIV through:

Heterosexual and homosexual sex without a condom

Sharing drug-injecting equipment

Sharing sex toys

Mother-to-child transmission

When should you get tested for HIV?

According to the Terrence Higgins Trust, this very much depends on your sexual activity

  • If you don’t have a regular partner and have casual sex: at least once every six months
  • If you have lots of sexual partners: at least every three months
  • If you have symptoms that may be an STI (e.g, sores, inflammation or discharge): go to a clinic straight away. Don’t have sex until you receive the all-clear
  • If you are in a new relationship: before having sex, especially if you’re not planning to use condoms, a sexual health screen including an HIV test is wise

For support or to find your local clinic contact THT on 0808 802 1221 or use their service finder (tht.org.uk/centres-and-services).

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