During the 20 years that AIDS has been in the public eye, countless urban legends, myths and wonderful conspiracy theories have sprung up, each claiming to be the cause of the current HIV pandemic.
It’s human nature after all to find something or someone to blame for a global health crisis which has claimed the lives of millions of people.
No-one really knows how or when the virus first started and there’s no known cure. But for many people, there’s a strong need to believe in a definitive explanation for the havoc wreaked by HIV and AIDS. It’s their way of coping with a scourge which might otherwise seem overwhelming.
Some of these myths are fairly harmless – like the one about the virus being transmitted through mosquitoes which have bitten someone with HIV. That’s been proved to be medically impossible. When mosquitoes bite they inject the saliva of their previous victim rather than their blood. This saliva can pass on malaria and yellow fever but not HIV.
You CAN’T get HIV from kissing, coughing or sneezing and certainly not from swimming pools, showers or toilets. Basically HIV transmission requires very close contact with vaginal fluids, semen and breast milk or infected blood. It’s a very fragile virus which doesn’t live outside the body.
More AIDS Myths
Other so-called urban legends, however, can have tragic consequences. In some parts of Africa, particularly in southern Africa, there’s a belief that if a man has sexual intercourse with a virgin, it will cure his AIDS. This has led to young children being sexually abused and baby girls, as young as a few weeks old, being gang raped. Of course it’s a complete myth that this will cure the rapist of the virus. Instead what happens is that an innocent child is put at risk of infection. The child may grow up and pass the virus on and so it continues.
And then we have religion and its fundamentalists who believe that AIDS is God’s punishment. In the early history of the virus, the only cases we ever really heard about where among the gay community. The “gay plague” was seen as God’s disapproval of homosexuality which is described in the traditional Bible as a sin. It was the Almighty’s way of punishing gays for their “lewd” behaviour. This is still very much a belief among certain fundamentalists who believe that God is not only unhappy with homosexuality but with people who use drugs and have sex outside marriage.
How these fundamentalists rationalise HIV infection among people who have contracted the virus through blood transfusions is anyone’s guess.
But myths and misconceptions still abound and no doubt will always infect our society.
There was a theory back in the 1980s, still expounded by some, that the HIV virus was a part of a CIA conspiracy and a biological experiment that went very wrong. Who knows? One of the world’s most secretive organisations is hardly likely to put its hands up and admit to causing the planet’s biggest ever health epidemic.