By: Vida y Salud, with the assistance of Dr. Mauricio Lozano.
Sexual health is enhanced when we have timely, truthful and concrete information and when we instantiate it in our sexual practices. Let’s dispel some myths and promote responsible actions with scientific knowledge.
Those of us who are older remember the era of generalized panic about HIV that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. At that time, health promotion campaigns were consistent and responded to the deadly scourge of the AIDS epidemic that peaked between 2004 and 2005 with 2 million deaths a year.
In the present, the situation of people with HIV has improved thanks to pharmacological and therapeutic advances: HIV infection rates have been continuously reduced globally since 1997, largely due to the effectiveness of health promotion and disease prevention strategies. With effective techniques, we have succeeded in turning this deadly disorder into a chronic pathology.
The success of these projects has confirmed the need to continue investing in effective and inclusive sexual education that provides individuals with accurate and appropriate information to take care of their health. For this reason, today and always we continue fighting against ignorance and disinformation, in order to prolong the successes that we have been harvesting for two decades.
This issue is especially important in the present since the dissipation of the general panic by AIDS has witnessed an increase in the transmission of other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as gonorrhea and syphilis.
Having HIV is a death sentence.
FALSE: Having the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) does not amount to a death sentence. With simple and easy-to-follow medical care, an HIV-positive patient can lead a healthy life and avoid reaching the AIDS stage, where their health and life can be compromised. Of course, it is important to maintain routines that promote health, such as timely medical appointments, adequate adherence to antiretroviral regimens, and to follow a balanced diet supplemented by appropriate exercises. This will prevent complications associated with HIV.
I do not need special care to use a condom effectively.
FALSE: Condoms are highly effective at preventing sexually transmitted infections, provided you follow certain simple instructions: Do not use a condom more than once, avoid using two condoms (friction can cause ruptures and expose you to risks) and use proper lubrication. Likewise, the effectiveness of the condom is guaranteed when you use it properly: put it on a firm erection that ensures it is held on the penis, and remember to remove the air bubble that may appear on the tip. Never open it with teeth or sharp objects that can generate cracks in the material.
A mosquito or a towel can infect me with HIV.
FALSE: HIV and STIs are transmitted by genital fluids or blood contact, but they do NOT have risks associated with mosquito bites or sharing of everyday items (eg. towels, cutlery, bed linens, chairs ...). Despite this, it is important to remember that toothbrushes and razor blades can transmit bacteria and viruses from one person to another, and the same thing happens with shared hypodermic needles or tattoo equipment. Deal with the stigma associated with STIs by being aware of the real risks of transmission and, at the same time, by not sharing objects that may endanger your health.
Only promiscuous people are at risk for STIs.
FALSE: Although having several sexual partners multiplies the risk of contracting an STI, any sexually active person can be infected in an unsafe sexual encounter. It is also false to believe that only high-risk populations —men who have sex with men, intravenous drug users, sex workers— are exposed to these infections. Everyone, without exception, takes risks when they do not use protection. And it is also not true to think that having a single sexual contact —or a brief one— improves the possibilities of transmission: having unsafe sex always carries a risk of infection.
Having or having had an STI prevents infection by other STIs.
FALSE: The microorganisms responsible for STIs are varied and comprise viruses and bacteria that do not compete with each other: being infected by one of these pathogens does NOT protect you from infections associated with others. In fact, suffering from some STIs can lead to contagion by other microorganisms, as the lesions —warts, chancres, etc.— increase the permeability of mucous membranes, exposing your body more easily. The only 100% effective mechanism to prevent transmission is abstinence, but with responsible and continuous use of the condom, supplemented by frequent clinical examinations, we can achieve a safer sexuality.
I can clearly see that someone - or myself - has an STI.
FALSE: Several STIs are usually asymptomatic or have such mild symptoms that the person who has them may not be aware of their condition, or believe that it is the result of a pathology not associated with sexuality. In fact, the only way to confirm that you are healthy is achieved through lab tests that rule out infection by pathogens that do not produce symptoms. Some sexually transmissible microorganisms can also produce symptoms of short duration that may go unnoticed. If you have been exposed to risky situations, it is advisable to go to a health center for examination and to rule out infections.
The only way to acquire an STI is through penetration.
FALSE: Penetrative sex implies greater risks of contagion, with anal sex being more risky than vaginal sex, but both have in common the fact that carrying them out without protection means putting your present and future health status at risk: some STIs may compromise fertility, hearing, sight, and even life. In addition, oral sex can be a very effective way to get an infection when it is practiced in an unsafe way — without a condom in the case of men or mouth barriers with women. Remember that the absence of symptoms like injuries does NOT imply that you can lower your guard in the matter of protection: always protect yourself, even for oral sex.
Water and soap, or pool water, or heat from a hot tub can eliminate STIs.
FALSE: Neither water, soap, chlorine, nor high temperatures are measures that eradicate the pathogens responsible for STIs. None of these methods is effective for the prevention or treatment of STIs. Current clinical protocols consider that the only effective strategy for eliminating STIs of bacterial origin —gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis— is the responsible use of antibiotics: taking them in a timely manner and with missing any doses. For viral infections there are also pharmacological strategies, as in the case of herpes symptoms that can be improved with the application of creams. There are also treatments for HIV and hepatitis B and C viruses that must be prescribed and supervised by physicians.
HIV cannot be prevented.
FALSE: Everyone can do a lot to protect themselves from STIs while still having sex. Although abstinence is the only 100% effective way to prevent STIs, there are other strategies such as condom use and erotic games that allow you to enjoy sex with a decreased risk of contracting HIV or other STIs. In addition, countries such as the United States are increasingly strengthening drug therapies to prevent HIV transmission. PreP —Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis— consists in taking a daily medication that prevents HIV transmission, but this highly effective strategy has not been implemented yet in Colombia. PreP also does NOT protect you from other infections such as syphilis, gonorrhea and hepatitis B or C.