Facts & Myths

How is HIV transmitted? Can I get HIV by kissing someone? Some common misconceptions about the transmission of HIV and other STIs explained.

Social Contact

Can I get HIV from sharing a drinking glass with someone living with HIV?

No, HIV can only be transmitted via unprotected sexual intercourse, sharing needles, breastfeeding and/or direct blood to blood contact with an HIV positive person.

Can I get HIV from hugging someone living with HIV?

Absolutely not. HIV is not transmitted via skin contact.

Can I get HIV from sharing food with or having it prepared by someone living with HIV?

No. HIV is not transmitted through saliva and, even if the food contained small amounts of HIV-infected blood or semen, exposure to the air, heat from cooking, and stomach acid would destroy the virus.

Is there any risk being around a flatmate, friend or colleague who is living with HIV?

No. HIV is not spread by day-to-day contact with other people. HIV is not spread through shaking hands, hugging, or kissing. You cannot become infected from a toilet seat, a door knob, dishes, drinking glasses, food, or cigarettes.

HIV and Sex

“I’m never the receptive partner during anal sex, so I’m not at risk, right?”

Wrong. Although unprotected receptive anal sex carries the highest risk, it is still possible to contract HIV if you are the insertive partner and you are not taking preventative measures (condoms, PrEP, U=U). HIV can still enter the body through vulnerable skin cells under the head of the penis or through the urethra. HIV can also enter through openings in the skin, ulcers, warts and sores from other STIs and infections.

 

“Is there a pill that can prevent HIV?”

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (or PrEP) is an HIV prevention method where HIV negative people take a pill to reduce their risk of contracting HIV.

PrEP contains two antiretroviral medicines that are also used to suppress the virus in people who are living with HIV:

•  Tenofovir 
•  Emtricitabine

You may know this medicine by a brand name Truvada, however there are generic forms of the drug with the same active ingredients - such as the Teva generic funded in New Zealand.

PrEP should be taken every day to be most effective. As it works by building up levels of the medication in your system, missing doses may reduce the effectiveness of the medication. 

If you do choose to take PrEP differently - it’s absolutely essential that your doctor is in the loop and making recommendations accordingly. You should also never take PrEP from someone else’s supply or without a prescription.

PrEP is not a vaccine and only provides protection from HIV so long as you continue to take it as prescribed. However, unlike condoms, PrEP does not protect you against other sexually transmitted infections like syphilis or gonorrhoea.
As of 2018, PrEP is now a funded medicine in New Zealand. That means it can be accessed on prescription by anyone who meets criteria developed by PHARMAC. If you are eligible for publicly funded healthcare in New Zealand, and you meet the PHARMAC criteria, then your PrEP pills will be funded. You’ll only need to pay $5 per three-month supply at your local pharmacy. 

If you are not eligible for publicly funded healthcare (for example, if you’re an international student), or you don’t meet the PHARMAC criteria, then you will have the option to self-fund your PrEP pills. This involves purchasing the medication from a pharmacy directly, or from a reliable overseas supplier and importing it into to New Zealand. You will still need a prescription to purchase PrEP.

>> Read more about PrEP.

 

“Some people say that if they are on HIV medication and have an undetectable viral load, it’s safe for them to have unprotected sex. Is this correct?”

An undetectable viral load is when the amount of HIV in a person’s blood is no longer able to be measured in a standard blood test. For people living with HIV who are able to reach this status by taking their medication as prescribed, HIV isn’t transmitted sexually. 

Research of serodiscordant couples (couples with different HIV status), where the partner living with HIV had an undetectable viral load, (in the Opposites Attract, PARTNER and PARTNER 2 studies) reported no cases of HIV transmission in over 126,000 cases of condomless sex with their HIV-negative partners.

These results support those of previous studies with similar findings and have resulted in organisations such as UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation supporting the message that Undetectable equals Untransmittable (U=U). 

U=U refers to HIV transmission risk that is “so small or unimportant as to be not worth considering; insignificant”. Put simply, there is effectively no risk of HIV transmission. It is important to remember, having an undetectable viral load does not protect you against other sexually transmitted infections like syphilis or gonorrhoea.

>> Read more about undetectable viral load.

 

“If I have sex with a sex worker, am I at risk of HIV?”

The rates of HIV among sex workers in New Zealand are very low compared to other countries. The risk of getting HIV from kissing or having unprotected oral sex with any person, including sex workers, is very low. It's also very low risk if you've had anal or vaginal sex with a condom. If you didn't use a condom for anal or vaginal sex then the risk is much higher and you should get tested

 

“If I have unprotected oral sex with an HIV positive person, am I at risk?”

The risk of HIV transmission via oral sex is extremely low. The enzymes in saliva act as a natural defence to HIV. The risk of contracting HIV increases if there are open sores or cuts in the mouth. Unprotected oral sex does expose you to the risk of other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

 

“If I contract another STI like gonorrhoea or syphilis, does my risk of getting HIV increase?”

Yes. The presence of another STI can substantially increase the risk of contracting HIV. This is because the immune system is already considerably compromised by either local inflammation and/or weakened mucous membranes in the form of sores and ulcers.

Therefore a person is more vulnerable to both HIV acquisition and transmission. Which means regular testing for STIs is an important part ensuring you aren’t at risk of HIV.

Our Suggested Reading