Dr. LaShonda Spencer
Ignorance isn't always bliss...especially when it comes to your health. You may think HIV is a disease that will never affect you, but it's time to think again. Dr. LaShonda Spencer, an infectious disease specialist at MCA Clinic at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, dispels seven misconceptions about HIV. How to protect yourself and prevent the spread of this virus.

1. I'm not high risk, so I won't get HIV.

Dr. LaShonda Spencer: Many of the HIV positive women in our clinic considered themselves "low risk." This low-risk status is based on lack of behaviors generally associated with acquiring HIV. Typically these women are in a stable, monogamous relationships, have had one or two lifetime partners, don't use drugs and have not had a blood transfusion in the past. However, what is not considered in this risk stratification is knowing your partner's status or risk. This includes whether your partner is aware of his HIV status, if he's using or used injection drugs or has had multiple female or male partners—these behaviors make the partner high risk and put women at risk for HIV.

For all women, it is important to know their and their partner's HIV statuses. Nearly 80 percent of new HIV infections in women occur from heterosexual sex. The best thing a woman can do is to protect herself by using condoms at all times and insist that her partners be tested for HIV.

2. He looks like a nice guy, so he can't have HIV.

Dr. Spencer: A person can be infected with HIV and not look sick, particularly in the early stages of the disease. A man may not consider himself to be at risk for HIV as well, so he may not think he needs to get tested. The only way to know if you have HIV is to get tested, and I encourage women to get tested with their partners. The key is for women to be able to discuss this with their partners. This discussion should happen before you become intimate. In some relationships, this may be difficult; however, it is our job as providers to help educate and empower women in their relationships in order to protect themselves.

3. Women can't get HIV from oral sex.

Dr. Spencer: Oral sex is less risky, and the risk of HIV transmission is extremely low. However, you need to be safe: Oral sex should be performed with condoms or dental dams.

4 more myths debunked
4. Down-low men are bringing HIV into the heterosexual community.

Dr. Spencer: There's a myth about the down-low male being responsible for the large number of cases of HIV in the heterosexual community, particularly in the African-American community. This is a man who has sex with both men and women and is usually in a stable relationship with a woman, maybe a wife or a longtime girlfriend. Studies have shown that these men actually only account for a rather small percentage of HIV infection in the African-American community. By far, the majority of women are getting infected by men who are heterosexual and either unaware of their HIV status, have multiple partners, are using injection drugs or engaging in other high-risk behaviors.

5. HIV only affects the African-American community.

Dr. Spencer: HIV is affecting all women—women of all races, background and educational levels. It is true that HIV disproportionately affects women of color. African-American/black and Latina women make up only 25 percent of the U.S. population, yet they account from more than 80 percent of the new HIV/AIDS cases. In fact, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for African-American/black women ages 25 to 34. However, HIV is seen in all communities and can affect you. Of all new cases of HIV among women, black women accounted for 61 percent, Latina women accounted for 17 percent and white women accounted for 15 percent.

For this reason, all women should be knowledgeable about HIV, know how to protect themselves, use condoms and ask their partners about testing. Everyone should be tested, as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends. If you're high risk, get tested at least yearly. Pregnant women should be tested at the beginning of the pregnancy and consider retesting near the time of delivery. People who are in a relationship with someone who is HIV infected should use condoms and be tested every six months.

6. I'm older, so I won't get HIV.

Dr. Spencer: Clearly, as women get older and reenter the dating world after divorce or separation, they are at risk for HIV as well. Across the United States, there has been an increase in diagnoses in women over 50 years old. In addition, there are people who are living much longer with HIV because of the advancement in our medications. I have patients in their 50s and 60s with this disease who are doing great on their medications. Therefore, if you are dating, you should be just as careful and should protect yourself—no matter what your age.

7. HIV is a death sentence.

Dr. Spencer: HIV is no longer a death sentence. The deaths that we saw in the '80s and the early '90s are no longer. HIV medications—HAART (Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy)—have prolonged the lives of patients with HIV, and many can live a near normal life span. People with HIV have to take medications for the rest of their lives like people with many other chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease. The key with HIV is to take your medicine every day and to not miss doses. When you miss doses, you may develop resistance, and that's when HIV becomes difficult to treat.

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