Around 105,200 people are living with HIV in the UK, according to most recent estimates, but the government’s aiming to eradicate transmissions by 2030.
First identified in 1981, HIV/AIDS was the cause of one of humanity’s biggest epidemics. But innovations in testing and treatments for HIV – the virus which can cause AIDS – have not only reduced the risk of contracting it, but also allowed those with HIV to live full, long and healthy lives.
Despite how far we’ve come in recent years though, HIV and AIDS still carry a lot of stigma, mainly because there is so much misinformation around them.
“One of the key reasons [our charity] exists is to challenge the stigma and myths still surrounding HIV,” says Ian Green, chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust. “Sharing the facts about the virus in 2021 is crucial for achieving that.”
Terrence Higgins was one of the first people in the UK to die of an AIDS-related illness in the 1980s. The charity was set up in his name by his partner and friends at the time, to personalise and humanise the disease in a very public way.
The trust say because people lack information about the virus, it’s easy for them to assume wrongly or make moral judgements about how someone has contracted HIV.
To help sort fact from fiction, we asked Green to bust a handful of myths that people living with a HIV diagnosis wish everyone would stop saying and believing…
Myth 1: You can get HIV from kissing
“You can’t get HIV from kissing, sharing cutlery or toilet seats. We’ve known day-to-day contact isn’t a transmission risk for almost 40 years, and yet these are myths which never go away,” says Green.
“Recent research conducted by the Terrence Higgins Trust, found almost half of people wouldn’t feel comfortable kissing someone living with HIV. That’s purely because of stigma and lack of knowledge.”
HIV is in fact spread by contact with certain bodily fluids of a person with HIV, most commonly during unprotected sex or through sharing injection drug equipment. It can also be passed from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding, although this is much more rare.
Myth 2: HIV and AIDS are the same thing
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) attacks cells that help the body fight off infections, which makes you more vulnerable to other diseases and illness.
Contracting HIV can lead to the development of AIDS, the term used to describe a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that occur when your immune system has been weakened by HIV – but they are two very different things, and it is now very possible to prevent AIDS from developing.
“Because of effective medication that keeps people well, we rarely talk about AIDS in the UK anymore. Instead, we’re able to talk about people living well with HIV,” says Green.
“In fact, our latest #LifeReallyChanged campaign celebrates the achievements of people living with HIV after their diagnosis – as well as all the phenomenal progress in the fight against HIV helping make them possible.
“You can now live a long, healthy life with the virus and people go on to become mothers and fathers, pilots and priests, nurses and radio presenters.”
Myth 3: You can pass it on when you’re on treatment
“Fear of transmission is what drives the stigma surrounding HIV, but the reality is, we can now say with absolute confidence that people living with HIV and on effective treatment can’t pass it on,” stresses Green.
When taken correctly, HIV treatment reduces the amount of virus in someone’s blood, to the point where it cannot be transmitted from person to person. This is called an ‘an undetectable viral load’.
Myth 4: HIV is a death sentence
In the 1980s and early-Nineties, most people with HIV were eventually diagnosed with AIDS. Now, things are very different.
“HIV treatment has transformed a diagnosis from a virtual death sentence, to a manageable long-term condition. That means HIV doesn’t have to limit you,” says Green.
“What can be a major issue though is other people’s outdated views of HIV, which have a negative impact on the lives and mental health of people living with the disease. If everyone knew the facts about HIV, then we could end the stigma and end new cases too,” adds Green.
Myth 5: People living with HIV will pass it on to their children
As Green says: “There are now almost no babies born with HIV in the UK, because of interventions that can be made prior to the birth. We work with many HIV positive mothers to share their stories and show that HIV isn’t a barrier to parenthood.”
Myth 6: The fight against HIV is over
“We’ve come a long way in the fight against HIV and made huge medical progress, but it’s not over – in the UK or globally,” says Green.
“In this country we’re now aiming to end new HIV cases by 2030 and the Government has committed to that, but one of the biggest obstacles to achieving it is complacency, and we need a real step change to meet our life-changing target.
“Channel 4’s It’s A Sin [about the AIDS crisis] was a brilliant series that resulted in more people than ever testing for HIV, but I beg people not to see HIV as a something that’s confined to the 1980s, and to keep supporting the work we do.”
The Terrence Higgins Trust offer support, information and advice services on HIV at a number of locations. For more information, see tht.org.uk