Former deputy president, now ANC president, Jacob Zuma’s claim at his rape trial in 2006 that showering after sex will protect you from HIV is just one of many dangerous myths surrounding the killer disease. ‘New myths are constantly emerging,’ says Dr David Harrison, CEO of Love Life. ‘They are often used to avoid facing difficult realities. But some myths, like those around HIV, put us at risk and perpetuate stigma, prejudice and sexual violence.’
MYTH 1: HIV ONLY AFFECTS POOR PEOPLE
Why we may believe it: Those of us who aren’t poor like to think we’re safe.
Why we shouldn’t: Studies show South Africa’s lowest-income groups have 10 to 20 times higher incidence of HIV than higher-income groups, says Dr Clive Evian, director of Aids Management and Support. But educated and affluent people are at risk too, says Harrison. ‘A national survey in 2002 found a prevalence rate of 6,5% among adults with tertiary education. If you have more than one partner or don’t use a condom, there’s a good chance HIV will get you – regardless of your social status.’
MYTH 2: HIV ONLY AFFECTS BLACK PEOPLE
Why we may believe it: Love Life lists the incidence rate among African adults as 20%, Coloureds 3,2%, Indians one percent and whites less than one percent.
Why we shouldn’t: HIV thrives in marginalised communities and in families disrupted by poverty, says Harrison, which explains the perceived racial differences. In a risky sexual encounter, your chances of contracting HIV are the same whether you’re black, white or any other colour. Also, HIV is transmitted with needles and drug-use spreads across all racial groups, says Nokhwezi Hoboyi, editor of the Treatment Action Campaign newsletter Equal Treatment.
MYTH 3: I WON’T GET HIV IF I SLEEP WITH AN INFECTED PERSON ONLY ONCE
Why we believe it: Wishful thinking!
Why we shouldn’t: It takes only one sexual encounter to get HIV, says Evian. ‘And while the virus may not spread from your partner every time, it’s foolish to take any risk. If you have a genital disease or STD, the risk of infection is even higher.’
MYTH 4: IT’S ONLY NECESSARY TO USE ONE CONDOM A NIGHT, EVEN IF YOU HAVE SEX MORE THAN ONCE
Why we may believe it: Condoms seem hardy and it’s easy to think that, with a quick wipe, they’re ready for the next round.
Why we shouldn’t: HIV and other viruses such as genital herpes are found in all seminal fluid, including the clear fluid produced before and after ejaculation, says Harrison. ‘It’s not easy to clean a condom properly to remove all viruses, and reusing it puts you at risk.’
MYTH 5: IT’S OKAY IF HE DOESN’T EJACULATE INSIDE ME
Why we may believe it: We imagine HIV is only found in semen and that if he withdraws his penis before ejaculation we’re safe.
Why we shouldn’t: ‘HIV can pass through the mucous membranes lining the inside of the vagina or rectum, or through cuts in the mouth or other areas coming into contact with blood or semen,’ says Harrison. You also run a small risk if he ejaculates outside you and semen spreads around the entrance to your vagina, says Evian.
MYTH 6: DOUCHING AFTER SEX PROTECTS AGAINST HIV
Why we may believe it: We imagine vaginal douching washes out the virus.
Why we shouldn’t: Vaginal washing with water is unlikely to prevent HIV infection, says Harrison, but ‘douching with anything other than water (chemicals or disinfectants) may damage your vaginal lining and could increase the risk of transmission.’
MYTH 7: YOU CAN GET HIV THROUGH SALIVA
Why we may believe it: We know you can test for HIV antibodies in saliva, so we imagine HIV can be transmitted in saliva.
Why we shouldn’t: Although HIV is found in saliva, it’s usually in quantities too small to infect anyone, says Harrison. ‘There’s only been one recorded case of transmission via kissing, and that was when both partners had badly bleeding gums.’ Don’t kiss if either of you has open mouth sores or oral thrush.
MYTH 8: HE’S MY BOYFRIEND AND HE WOULDN’T CHEAT
Why we may believe it: Because we’re in love.
Why we shouldn’t: A quarter of South African men say they’ve had more than one sexual partner in the past year, compared with six percent of women, says Harrison. ‘Even if he’s faithful to you, everyone he’s slept with is sleeping with you.’
MYTH 9: IT’S BETTER NOT TO GET TESTED, BECAUSE A POSITIVE RESULT MEANS LIFE IS OVER ANYWAY
Why we may believe it: It’s easier to deny than to face reality.
Why we shouldn’t: Denial only makes matters worse, even if you’re HIV positive already. A survey of nearly 12 000 15- to 24-year-olds in 2003 found two-thirds of those who proved HIV positive didn’t think they were at risk at all. Getting tested gives you more control, and it’s been shown you’re more likely to adopt safer behaviour, says Harrison.
MYTH 10: I’M HIV POSITIVE, SO I MAY AS WELL HAVE UNPROTECTED SEX
Why we may believe it: We think if we have HIV, we can’t get it again.
Why we shouldn’t: ‘Once you’ve been infected, your body mounts an immune response that keeps the levels of virus low – until your immune system burns out and the virus regains the upper hand,’ says Harrison. ‘Repeated infection makes your immune system work harder and can speed up progression to Aids.’
MYTH 11: SHOWERING AFTER SEX PREVENTS INFECTION
Why we may believe it: Jacob Zuma said so.
Why we shouldn’t: ‘Showering leaves you cleaner, but just as infected,’ says Harrison. ‘HIV transmission happens quickly during sexual intercourse – the virus moves swiftly into the vaginal or urethral lining or through skin abrasions.’
MYTH 12: ANTIRETROVIRAL TREATMENT (ART) IS A CURE
Why we may believe it: We’re hopeful that if ART prolongs and improves the quality of life, it may be a cure.
Why we shouldn’t: Although ART can keep people healthy for years, there’s no cure for Aids, says Harrison. ‘Antiretrovirals are the only scientific treatment available to manage HIV,’ says Hoboyi. ‘And I’m living proof that they work. In 2005, my CD4 count was 11, and after taking my treatment correctly, it’s gone up to 195 – just five points below normal.’