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Myth: HIV is a very serious and contagious disease

Myth: HIV is a very serious and contagious disease

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Myth busters

Of course, you would prefer not to get HIV. Even though the disease is no longer fatal, given the right medication, the patient will have to take the medication for the rest of his or her life and deal with any side effects. “But is that worse than having diabetes?” social psychologist Sarah Stutterheim wonders. “That is the way it's depicted. Even during sex education. There are all those other STDs and then – ten times worse – there is HIV. But chlamydia, for example, can also have serious consequences, including infertility. If you take your medication properly, you can have a reasonably healthy life with HIV.”

The infectiousness is also overestimated. “It is actually very difficult to catch HIV. There must be blood-to-blood contact with someone who has not been treated. You cannot catch HIV from shaking someone's hand, even if you have a cut. When someone who is HIV positive, starts taking the medication, the so-called viral load (the amount of HIV in your blood, ed.) begins to drop. When it reaches a point where it can no longer be detected through tests, that person is no longer contagious and can have sex without a condom, although you are then not protected against other STDs, of course.”

Research by Stutterheim and her colleagues into the stigmatisation of HIV/AIDS, showed that people are initially wary of people with HIV. “They behave in an extra careful manner, while there is no need to do so. That first automatic reaction comes from fear. The best way to deal with that is to bring people in contact with HIV patients. By creating such contacts, people with HIV become less stigmatised.”

At the moment, there are not very many people with HIV in the Netherlands, chances of you knowing someone are very small. “The stigma can also be reduced by films, TV programmes or meetings. I myself, for example, am going to give a lecture on World Aids Day and afterwards I will have a discussion with people who have HIV (see text box, ed.). Listening to those stories helps too.”

Something else that helps is if people with HIV are open about their disease, but this is difficult because of the stigmatisation. “It is not always the best for the person in question. They have to be able to deal with possible negative reactions. Patients find themselves having to cope with reproach, being cast out, and friends suddenly not feeling comfortable in their vicinity. That makes the question of being open a great dilemma.”


World Aids Day

On World Aids Day, Friday 1 December, many organisations, including the HIV association and Maastricht University, will organise a variety of activities. There will be a lecture on the impact of becoming infected, in Café Rosé at 16:00hrs, and Sarah Stutterheim (Maastricht University) and Arjan Bos (Open University) will talk about the stigmatisation of HIV patients in the municipality's council chamber from 19:00-20:00. All activities are free of charge, except for the communal dinner, for which prior registration is required.

For more information, see www.hivvereniging.n

Mythbusters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics



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