Breaking the Stigma Around HIV Testing
What is HIV and AIDS?
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the immune system, which is the body’s defense against infections and diseases. The virus can gradually weaken the immune system, and eventually cause acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
How is HIV Transmitted?
HIV can only be transmitted through five bodily fluids. These are:
- Semen (including pre-cum)
- Rectal fluid
- Vaginal fluid
- Breast milk.
HIV transmission can only occur when the virus in one of the fluids mentioned above gets into the bloodstream of an HIV-negative individual. This can occur through broken skin, wet linings of the body (e.g., the vagina, rectum, or foreskin), or through the opening of the penis.
HIV is mainly passed:
- through sex
- by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs
Some other ways HIV is passed are:
- Through pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding to a fetus or baby
- By sharing needles or ink when getting a tattoo
- By sharing needles or jewelry when getting a body piercing
- By sharing acupuncture needles
How is HIV Not Transmitted?
There are several common myths about how HIV is transmitted. For instance, one misconception is that you can get HIV by simply being around someone who is HIV positive. This is false, HIV cannot be transmitted through healthy, unbroken skin. Therefore, it cannot be acquired by:
- Shaking hands, working, or eating with someone who has HIV
- Hugs or kisses
- Coughs, sneezes, or spitting
- Swimming pools, toilet seats, or water fountains
- Insects or animals
Myths about HIV transmission can be very harmful, as they spread fear and further stigmatize the condition.
What can Life with an HIV Positive Diagnosis Look Like Today?
With the current advancements in HIV treatments and care, an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is a common treatment that can lead to an undetectable viral load (amount of HIV particle in the body) if it is adhered to consistently. Individuals who maintain an undetectable viral load are not at risk of transmitting HIV sexually. Undetectable = Untransmitable (U =U)
What is HIV Stigma?
Since its discovery in the 1980s, HIV and AIDS have been perceived negatively by the general public. HIV stigma refers to these negative attitudes and beliefs about people living with HIV. This is largely due to a lack of awareness about how the virus is transmitted and what living with HIV is like today. Additionally, HIV and AIDS were mainly associated with gay males in the 1980s, leading to the belief that it is a ‘gay disease’. Although people of any sex, gender, or sexual orientation can get HIV, this history has a continued effect on the stigma and shame associated with the illness. HIV stigma can also be internalized by people living with HIV. This can result in feelings of shame, isolation, and despair.
What is the Impact of HIV Stigma and Shame?
HIV stigma can have very harmful effects on people. For instance, the shame can prevent an individual from disclosing their sexual history to a healthcare provider, or from disclosing their HIV status to their sexual partners. It can also impact one’s mental health, as someone diagnosed with HIV may develop a negative self-image. This may cause fears of being judged or discriminated against if their HIV status is revealed.
HIV Stigma and Testing
The shame and stigma can also prevent individuals from getting tested and treated for HIV. This can be particularly detrimental. HIV testing is the only way to definitively know if you have the virus as it can take years for symptoms of AIDS to develop. Knowing your HIV status is essential for taking steps to get treatment and prevent the disease from spreading to others.
Things to keep in mind
The words we use when discussing HIV and AIDS has an impact on the stigma associated with it. The language that is frequently used to describe HIV and AIDS often revolves around the idea of cleanliness vs. dirtiness, and purity vs. impurity. For example, it is quite common to use the phrase “Are you clean?” when referring to HIV test results. This can imply that a positive test result is dirty or impure in some way, which can possibly evoke feelings of shame. Recognizing the negative language that is used when discussing HIV and using more appropriate alternatives (see table below) is a step towards dismantling the stigma surrounding HIV.
Condoms provide a physical barrier during sexual activities. They prevent the vagina, penis, rectum and mouth from being exposed to bodily fluids (such as semen, vaginal fluid and rectal fluid) that can contain HIV. Using condoms correctly and consistently can greatly reduce the risk of sexual transmission of HIV.
HIV Testing Options
Standard HIV Testing
A standard HIV test involves drawing blood from a vein in your arm and sending it to a laboratory for analysis. You can get a standard HIV test done at family doctors’ offices, walk-in clinics, and sexual health clinics. Note that the window period (time between HIV exposure and when a test can detect HIV in the body) can take anywhere from 20-30 days to 12 weeks.
You can consult a doctor about your sexual health and be screened for sexually transmitted infections at the SWC. To book an appointment, please call reception at 905-525-9140 ext. 27700.
HIV self-testing is a testing option that is available in Canada. An individual tests a blood sample from a finger prick using a kit that contains instructions and all the necessary materials to take the test. It usually takes under five minutes to perform the test. This may be ideal for someone who wants a more convenient, private way to get tested. You can get a self-test kit from:
- AIDS service organizations
- I’m Ready (can be picked up at the SWC)
- I’m Ready: HIV Self-Testing Program – Student Wellness Centre (mcmaster.ca)
- Get a Kit
I’m Ready: HIV Self-Testing Program
I’m Ready Talk app for peer support
Are Condoms a “No”? Get in the Know!
Physical Health, Sexual Health