December 1 was World AIDS Day – a day dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV infection, and mourning those who have died of the disease.
Because HIV infection has reached pandemic levels in Puerto Princesa (more than 5% of the population are estimated to be infected), we’ve been teaching about HIV in our communities and in high schools, and our Youth Advocates have facilitated getting young people tested for HIV at the Provincial Hospital.
We recently discussed HIV on our weekly radio show, Usapang K with Talk to Papa on Barangay 97.5. The story of the day was about a girl whose partner was HIV+ after having unprotected sex with men, and he spread the virus to her. She was distraught and contemplating suicide because she thought her life was over. She wondered if she could ever become a mother.
I was shocked and horrified at the things callers were saying on air. So many people had such negative and just-plain-wrong ideas about HIV. Our hosts tried to correct misconceptions but there were so many that I felt the need to write about this important topic. Below are some myths and facts about HIV. How many of these can you identify correctly?
1. HIV treatment is expensive and inaccessible.
FALSE. Last year, in response to the growing numbers of HIV infection in Palawan, the Department of Health opened a Red Top Treatment Center at Ospital ng Palawan. Voluntary Counseling and Testing for HIV and treatment if one is HIV+ is completely, 100% FREE. Cost is not a barrier to getting tested or getting treatment for HIV.
2. Only gay men or Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) have HIV.
FALSE. Anyone can get HIV. HIV doesn’t discriminate. HIV can infect all humans regardless of sex, gender, race, and socioeconomic status. At the moment, many of the people testing positive for HIV in Palawan are gay or as MSM. But many people are also bisexual, or do not identify as gay and have male and female partners. Anyone who has unprotected sex with more than one partner is at risk for HIV.
3. If I test positive for HIV that means I have AIDS and am going to die.
FALSE. Not everyone who tests positive for HIV has AIDS. HIV and AIDS are different, although they are related to each other. HIV is the virus that destroys the immune system. Once the body’s immune system is destroyed, the body is defenceless. This condition is called AIDS or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. The body is then unable to fight against opportunistic infections.
With early diagnosis and linkage to proper care, nutrition and medication, someone who has HIV may never develop AIDS. When someone has AIDS, it means he/she is unable to fight opportunistic infections. Such opportunistic infection may include TB, pneumonia, and chronic diarrhea or the combination of these infections. These infections might cause death if left untreated. However, HIV is not the death sentence that it was 25 years ago.
4. There is no cure for HIV.
TRUE. At the moment there is no cure for HIV. But people living with HIV can take treatment called Antiretroviral Therapy (ART). It slows down the spread of HIV all over the body. People who are undergoing ART do not have to be confined in a hospital but they do need to take daily medicine. Anyone who tests positive for HIV should immediately consult his/her doctor or go to Ospital ng Palawan Red Top Center. HIV is not a death sentence. With proper medication, a person living with HIV can still live a long life.
5. If you are an HIV+ woman, you cannot have a baby anymore.
FALSE. HIV+ women can still have babies who are not infected with HIV. Although HIV can pass from an HIV-infected mother to her child during pregnancy, at the time of birth, or when breast-feeding the infant, medical treatment of both the mother and her baby can minimize the chances of that happening. HIV+ women who want to have a baby should use ARTs before and during pregnancy in order to lower their HIV viral load
(or the concentration of HIV in her blood) as much as possible to prevent infection of the fetus. The lower the mother’s viral load during pregnancy and birth, the lower the risk of infecting her baby. Pregnant HIV+ women should have caesarian deliveries to avoid the baby going through the birth canal which is another stage where the baby could become infected. Finally, the mother should avoid breastfeeding because breast milk can carry HIV. If a couple or woman follow these protocols, they can have a baby that is not infected with HIV.
6. You can get HIV by sharing clothes and utensils with a person who has HIV.
FALSE. There are three modes in which HIV can be transmitted. These are: (1) unprotected penetrative sex – anal, vaginal, and oral sex; (2) infected blood transfusion – this can happen when one shares unclean needles or receives unscreened blood products; (3) mother to child transmission – possible during pregnancy, while giving birth, or when breastfeeding if the mother has not taken steps to reduce her viral load. These are the only ways to become infected with HIV. You CANNOT get HIV by using public toilets, or from mosquito bites. You cannot get HIV by simply interacting with or touching someone who has HIV.
7. Kissing someone who has HIV puts you at risk for HIV infection.
FALSE. There are very low concentrations of HIV in saliva, urine, and tears. These body fluids cannot transmit the virus. There are only four infectious body fluids: semen, vaginal fluids, blood, and breast milk.
Here is more information on HIV:
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Who should get tested for HIV?
Anyone who has had or experienced: unprotected penetrative sex; sexually transmitted infections; unplanned pregnancy; getting sexually assaulted; passing out or forgetting what happened after drinking or getting ‘high’; injecting drugs; receiving blood; or having a mother who has HIV.
Where can I get tested?
The following are the nearest HIV testing centers if you are in Puerto Princesa:
Public and free: Ospital ng Palawan, Amos Tara Community Center, Puerto Princesa City Social Hygiene Clinic, Provincial Health Office
Private and with a fee: Adventist Hospital, Coop Hospital, Puerto Gen
Do I need permission from a parent or guardian before I can get tested for HIV?
Yes if you are under 18. In some cases, minors can still get tested with the on-duty physician or social worker’s permission.
Can anyone find out my HIV test result?
No. HIV testing is confidential. R.A. 8504 protects your right to confidentiality.
When is the best time to get an HIV test?
Are you having unprotected sexual activities? Are you injecting drugs? Do you have multiple sexual partners? Were you born to a mother who has HIV? If your answer is yes to one or all of these questions then, it is the best time to get tested for HIV. However, another consideration is the ‘window period’. This is the period when HIV has successfully entered into your system but antibodies remain undetectable. This period lasts up to six months. So it would be a good idea to get tested now and to get tested again after six months.
How can we prevent the further spread of HIV?
Abstinence. Data show that HIV is commonly transmitted through sexual contact. Abstaining from any type of sex decreases your risk of being infected by HIV.
Monogamous sexual relationship helps reduce the risk of acquiring HIV. It is important to note that while you are faithful to your sexual partner, make sure that he/she is also faithful to you and that you know his/her HIV status.
Correct and Consistent Condom Use. It is a fact that Palawan’s teenagers engage in sexual activities. Using a condom correctly in every sexual encounter lowers the risk for HIV infection. Teen pregnancy is also a huge problem in Palawan. Condom use will also lower chances of having an unplanned pregnancy.
Avoid drugs and alcohol use as these can increase one’s chances of getting HIV. Sharing needles when injecting drugs is one way of getting infected. Also, anyone under the influence of drugs or alcohol has greater chances of being involved in unsafe sex.
Education and early diagnosis keep you away from developing AIDS and can help prevent the further spread of
HIV. It is important to know the facts of HIV/AIDS. Anyone who suspects himself/herself of having a possible infection should immediately and or regularly get an HIV test. If you test positive, you should immediately start using medication. If you have sexual partners, they should immediately be tested for HIV as well. People with HIV can still have sex but should always use condoms to prevent the further spread of the virus.