Almost 10,000 people have been diagnosed with HIV in Ireland since the early 1980s.
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.
“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 in the UK. “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.
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, yet these are myths which never go away,” says Green. “Recent research 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.
“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.
Myth 4: HIV is a death sentence
In the 1980s and early-’90s, most people with HIV were eventually diagnosed with AIDS. Now, things are very different.
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.”