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10 HIV/AIDS Myths

Why We're Losing Ground in the War on HIV/AIDS
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 29, 2007 -- Ten HIV/AIDS myths perpetuate the worldwide AIDS epidemic, a USAID researcher argues.

We've been fighting the AIDS pandemic for decades but still are losing ground. Why? James D. Shelton, MD, MPH, science advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development, has a radical suggestion.

Before offering his suggestion, however, Shelton challenges 10 "myths" that impede HIV prevention. It's a controversial position -- one that irks Gordon Dickinson, MD, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Miami and the Miami VA Medical Center.

Shelton's provocative commentary, appearing in the Dec. 1 World AIDS Day issue of The Lancet, focuses on the "generalized HIV epidemics" in Africa. Dickinson's objections focus on how these comments might be counterproductive in the U.S. and other developed nations.

"Myth" 1: HIV Spreads Like Wildfire

It does not, Shelton argues, noting that only 8% of people whose heterosexual partner carries HIV become infected each year.

"This low infectiousness in heterosexual relationships partly explains why HIV has spared most of the world's populations," Shelton writes.

That may be true, Dickinson counters. But when a person is first infected with HIV -- and still is negative on most HIV tests -- that person is extremely infectious. This means that in certain circumstances HIV can spread fast.

"Let's say you are a young adult and single and living on South Beach and you go clubbing every weekend and are somewhat promiscuous," Dickinson tells WebMD. "If you have an acute HIV infection, it will spread like wildfire. This is not a conflagration that will cover a whole continent. But in individual places, HIV spreads rapidly."

"Myth" 2: Sex Work Is the Problem

Relatively few men with multiple sexual partners pay for sex with a prostitute, Shelton notes. In areas of Africa where HIV is widespread, men often have financial arrangements with women who do not think of themselves as prostitutes. But targeting prostitutes does not reach these women and will not have a major impact on the epidemic.

"Myth" 3: Men Are the Problem

Shelton notes that in areas where HIV is widespread, women are just as likely as men -- in some areas, more likely -- to be the sexual partner first infected with HIV.

Kathleen Squires, MD, director of infectious diseases at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, says the myth in the U.S. is that HIV is a disease of gay men.

"If you look at newly diagnosed HIV infections, the proportion among women has steadily risen," Squires tells WebMD. "This clearly impedes diagnosis -- and prevention messages. Moreover, HIV disproportionately affects women of color and women in disadvantaged populations."

"Myth" 4: Teens Are the Problem

If HIV prevention efforts emphasize preaching abstinence to teens, they won't have much effect on the epidemic, Shelton suggests. He notes that people of all ages get and spread HIV -- and that where HIV is epidemic, HIV becomes more common among women in their 20s and older.

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