Separating Myths From Facts
There's still a lot of misinformation about HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Myth: The Top Partner During Vaginal and Anal Sex Is at Low Risk for HIV.
Fact: In reality, the top partner (the inserting partner) is at high risk of infection, and the bottom partner (the receiving partner) is at even higher risk of infection. This is because the top partner is being exposed to his partner's blood during anal sex (this is normal), and he is being exposed to his partner's vaginal secretions and possibly menstrual blood, during vaginal sex.
HIV can enter his body through microscopic cuts/abrasions on the head of his penis that normally occur during intercourse. Having another sexually transmitted disease (like syphilis and herpes) that causes open lesions can further increase this risk. During unprotected vaginal and anal intercourse, the insertive partner (the top) is at high risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and the receptive partner (the bottom) is at even higher risk. Neither partner is at low risk.
Myth: Oral Sex Is Low Risk for HIV.
Fact: This is only half right. Receiving oral sex (which would expose you only to saliva) is very low risk for HIV. But giving oral sex (exposure to pre-cum, semen, vaginal secretions or menstrual blood) is risky for HIV. The more of these body fluids that a person gets into their mouth, the greater the risk.
For example, when giving a man oral sex, there is a risk from pre-cum, but a much greater risk if the man ejaculates in your mouth. The risk is less than intercourse, but the risk is real. And yes, there have already been cases of HIV transmission through giving oral sex. And remember, you can also get other sexually transmitted diseases (like gonorrhea) by giving someone oral sex.
Myth: If You Already Have HIV, You Can Just Pop a Few Pills (HIV Meds) and the Symptoms Will Just Go Away.
Fact: There's no question that we have come a long way in treating HIV/AIDS. HIV medications do help a lot of people. But they don't work if you don't take them EXACTLY as prescribed. Forgetting to take one's medication can lead to drug resistance. And these drugs can have side effects that can make you sick.
Myth: Education, Condoms, or Abstinence From Sex, Is All It Takes to Stop the Spread of HIV and Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
Fact: All the education and condoms in the world won't protect you if you're drunk or high on drugs. And let's face it, there is a very high rate of alcoholism and drug abuse in many countries. When you're drunk from alcohol, or high on drugs (like meth, speed, pot, cocaine, etc.), you tend to put yourself at risk for HIV and STDs, when normally you would not.
Persons under the influence of alcohol and other recreational drugs, are more likely to have sex, they tend to use condoms less often, or they don't use them correctly. So even if a person knows all about HIV/STD prevention, all that education will be worthless, if they get drunk, or high from recreational drugs.
Myth: "Who Cares About Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases? They Cannot Kill You and You Can Cure Them!"
Fact: While some sexually transmitted diseases are curable, others are not. For example, hepatitis B is incurable and potentially fatal. Herpes and genital warts are also incurable. Syphilis left untreated is deadly. We have to start thinking about prevention against other sexually transmitted diseases as well. After all, do you want painful warts and herpes lesions on your genitals or on your rectum? And do you want to die from hepatitis? To read more about this, click here.
Myth: The Number of People Infected With HIV Is Going Down.
Fact: Actually, just the opposite is true. The number of people who are infected with HIV is going up. What has been going down is the number of new cases of AIDS in the U.S., and the death rate due to AIDS in developed nations. What's the difference? There is an average of 10 years from the time a person is infected with HIV, until a diagnosis of AIDS. AIDS statistics therefore tell us how many people were becoming infected an average of 10 years ago, and how they became infected 10 years ago. So prevention efforts 10 years ago is one of the reasons we are seeing a decrease in new AIDS cases today.
But in addition, better HIV/AIDS treatments are keeping people healthier and living longer, thus slowing down the progression from infection to AIDS, and also, reducing the death rate from AIDS.
However, when we look at HIV statistics (that is, how people are becoming infected today, and how many are living with HIV), the numbers are going up. This is due to a combination of two factors. First, the number of new cases of HIV infection is remaining relatively stable. Along with that, people who already have HIV/AIDS are living longer. When we combine these two factors, the number of people living with HIV are growing.
So although the rates of new cases of AIDS, and the death rate due to AIDS is decreasing in developed nations, the number of people living with HIV is increasing! Also remember that in developing nations (such as in Africa and Asia), both the number of new cases of AIDS, and the number of deaths due to AIDS, are still increasing.
Do you want more information on HIV/AIDS, STDs or safer sex? Contact the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Health Line, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-800-CDC-INFO.. Or visit The Body's Safe Sex and Prevention Forum.
Until next time . . . Work hard, play hard, play safe, stay sober!
Note: This article was originally published in December 1997 and has been updated.