7 Ways to Correct the Top 'Alternative Facts' About HIV

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In the Media, Online or Face-to-Face

Many of us encounter factual assertions about HIV that aren't actually true, whether in the media, online discourse or face-to-face encounters. Just recently, we've seen online explosions related to Charlie Sheen's HIV status being a response to his political tweets; speculation on the "real" cause of George Michael's death and difficult conversations about Mike Pence's complicity in an HIV outbreak in Indiana.

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Well-Meaning but Misinformed

Factual assertions that aren't actually true can also come from a well-meaning reporter who is not up to date with the current realities of HIV treatment and prevention, or one's own friends and family not knowing much beyond the initial media reporting on HIV in the '80s and '90s. And perhaps most troubling are memes, comments and confrontations that shame and stigmatize people affected by HIV, often based on wrongheaded assumptions or a lack of HIV education.

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The New Basics

Knowing the set of "new basics" about HIV can help you talk about the contemporary reality, fill information gaps and correct errors:

Image credit: HIV i-Base.

The Real Experts

TheBody.com spoke with HIV advocates and experts across the United States to learn more about commonly encountered misinformation and how to respond with knowledge and confidence. HIV ignorance is alive and well, but there are many empowered and caring people working to make sure that HIV is better understood and that we are all heard.

Here is what the people we spoke with said.

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"Only 'Those People' Get HIV"

Truth: HIV infection cuts across all communities, and many new infections in the United States are in young people.

I use social media daily for advocacy. I commonly encounter misinformation regarding HIV/AIDS and respond to comments that are stigmatizing to people living with or affected by HIV. Recently, an African-American man said online that PrEP shouldn't be promoted to heterosexual blacks or youth. I responded, "If you were aware of the heterosexual stats, you would think otherwise." I shared an infographic that reported: "About 1 in 4 new HIV infections is among youth ages 13-24. Most of them don't know they already have HIV and can unknowingly pass the virus to others." I then said there are many faces of HIV. It's not just a gay, middle-aged, white face -- and I sealed it with a #BLACKLIVESMATTER hashtag.

Shyronn Jones
Founder, iknowAwareness LLC
Strategic Communication Representative-Georgia Chapter, Positive Women's Network-USA
Atlanta, Ga.

Image credit: iModel Ent.

"You Need to Reveal How You Got HIV"

Truth: Disclosure can have bring on negative repercussions and it's up to each person to decide when and how to do it.

We live in a very conservative part of the country. A lot of folks in our area are not comfortable talking about sexual history at all, and some providers won't discuss it with their clients, although we do work with providers who want to become better educated. The question of how you got infected really isn't relevant anymore, except regarding risk factors. But the negative judgments about who you had sex with or whether you shoot drugs are very prevalent where we are. It's still a big deal just to be gay around here.

Lynne Meyerkord, Executive Director
AIDS Project of the Ozarks
Springfield, Mo.

Image credit: Dee Albert Photography.

"People With HIV Who Don't Disclose Should Go to Jail"

Truth: People with HIV have many reasons to not disclose their status. There are many times when their partners are at no risk of HIV acquisition, such as when the person with HIV has undetectable viral load.

One the major "take a deep breath before responding" comments I encounter is the idea that an HIV-positive individual who doesn't disclose his or her status to a sexual partner prior to intercourse deserves to be thrown into jail, period. Intent to transmit is rarely ever addressed by those saying this. Most are completely ignorant about the latest information on the chances of transmission if an HIV-positive person is undetectable.

Brady Dale Morris, Nashville Regional HIV Planning Council, Co-Chair
Tennessee AIDS Advocacy Network (TAAN)
Nashville, Tenn.

Image credit: Josh Busby.

"People With HIV/AIDS Look Sick"

Truth: Many people with HIV are healthy, and look that way too.

The body dysmorphia that was rampant in gay communities seems like something from the past, from the early days of HIV. The mentality was, if you hit the gym and look very healthy, no one ever questions you. We work with HIV-positive youth and have seen the reemergence of that mentality where everyone is over-focused on getting his body to look amazing. That can be dangerous when using weight gainers and other methods. We talk with our youth about the societal view of what "poz" men look like, including healthy options for health and physical fitness.

Jaysen Foreman, EPY Care Manager
Charlotte, N.C.

Image credit: RAIN.

"Injection Drug Users Have to Worry About Hep C, Not HIV"

Truth: Both HIV and hepatitis C can be transmitted or acquired by injection drug use.

In Vermont, we have a low incidence of HIV but a higher incidence of hepatitis C. Opiate-dependent injection drug users here may worry about their risks for hep C, but not for HIV. Our organization often weaves HIV prevention and treatment information into Hep C prevention education so it's more interesting and relevant to our clients.

Tom Dalton, Safe Recovery Program Director
Howard Center
Burlington, Vt.

Image credit: Morgan True.

"PrEP? That Doesn't Work"

Truth: PrEP is an extremely effective form of HIV prevention.

When I talk to folks about PrEP, I hear a lot of misconceptions. Folks don't realize that lower adherence was the major factor that made PrEP ineffective in some studies, not PrEP itself. There have been a couple of instances where antiretroviral-resistant HIV was transmitted to people who were using PrEP; however, overall, it's still very effective. I also hear that PrEP is only for men who have sex with men, but PrEP can be used by folks of all gender and sexual identities. The only perquisite for taking PrEP is testing negative for HIV. PrEP is an empowering sexual health tool, and it has the potential to change the course of HIV infection.

Abbey Stewart, Youth Engagement Coordinator
Nebraska AIDS Project
Omaha, Nebr.

Image credit: Quinton Stewart.

"Being Undetectable Doesn't Protect Anyone From HIV"

Truth: There have been no cases of HIV transmission from someone who has undetectable viral load from effective HIV treatment.

People think that being "undetectable" isn't a consistent way to protect your partners because you can always have spikes in your viral load due to illness and so on. I've also seen the misconception that since undetectable viral loads are only tested in your blood and not other body fluids, you can't rely on [undetectability] to protect partners who may come into contact with other bodily fluids such as semen and vaginal fluids. Because people don't understand undetectability, they may think the only way for a negative person to stay safe is to wear condoms every time with every partner for every sexual act.

J. Gaia Farnam, Prevention Programs Manager
Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS
Phoenix, Ariz.

Image credit: Jon Pilon.