HIV and AIDS frightened me when I was growing up. While I wasn’t even aware of the distinction between the two at that age, I was simply terrified of getting it. Whatever it was. To put it in perspective, I cut my hand on a piece of glass out in the veld (wilderness) when I was about seven and was convinced I had just contracted the disease. Because of this ignorance, my views about HIV/AIDS came with the inescapable misconceptions about the disease, such as how HIV is transmitted and what it actually does, and to be honest; some of those have stuck with me my whole life.
I grew up in South Africa during the late 80’s and early 90’s before leaving for a few years for Europe and then returning in late 2000. As was the case then, and still is unfortunately, HIV/AIDS plays a huge role in the healthcare issues facing the African continent. Nearly 600,000 people died of AIDS related causes in 2008 in South Africa alone while people living with the infection was suggested to be around 5.6 million for 2009. Because of the difficulty in tracking the disease, this number also varies from source to source.
There are also many reasons why the disease has such a large presence in sub-Saharan Africa. For many years governments refused to acknowledge the spread of HIV/AIDS in their respective countries. When they did, it was often under the guise of political intent which completely misinformed the general public. South Africa in particular received huge criticism from international organisations, and rightly so, when several ministers, including the then health minister, were quoted suggesting that herbal remedies such as lemon water, garlic or beetroot might solve the issue. While this might seem ludicrous to even consider, remember that there are dozens of cultural influences within the continent as well as large portions of the populations who are uneducated.
Personally, I have always believed that if you have an unprotected sexual encounter with someone who is HIV positive, they will transmit the infection regardless of anything. However, a new study on the transmission of HIV conducted in Africa suggests the infection and transmission is more complex.
This new study suggests that the transmission of HIV is based on the concentrations of the virus in the blood, the higher the concentration, as is the case with newly infected people, the more likely it is to transmit. The researchers agree that the ‘average can be a little deceptive’ but the overall results fit in conjunction with previous findings of antiretroviral drugs reducing the concentration of the virus, and therefore the chances of transmission significantly with the use of condoms.
Research like this is crucial to containing the pandemic further and treating those already infected. It’s also a further indication of why HIV/AIDS education is so vital to the global community. The more knowledge that is presented, the easier it is to help people reduce their chances of transmitting or receiving the virus as well as early diagnosis and treatment. With the advances in antiretroviral drugs, people who are infected can also lead relatively normal lives.
However, the numbers provided from the study are scientific representations and should not be taken out of context or seen as an indication that practising unprotected sex with an HIV positive partner can provide a level of safety. While it has changed my view on HIV transmission, I spoke with AVERT, a leading international HIV/AIDS charity, who agreed the study was relevant – but that people should not let themselves be misinformed.
”What is important to know is that every act of unprotected sex can lead to transmission of HIV, and people should not concentrate on these statistics when making personal decisions for themselves,” said Caitlin Mahon from the institute. “When used consistently and correctly, condoms are the most effective means to reduce risk of infection of HIV.”
If you believe you have contracted the virus, you should consult your doctor for a blood test or visit your local GUM clinic. They will be able to provide support and guidance, as well as treatment options.
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