Only three in ten adults (30%) can correctly identify, from a list of possible routes, all of the ways HIV is and is not transmitted
An increasing proportion of adults incorrectly believe HIV can be transmitted by impossible routes such as kissing and spitting
More than two thirds of British adults (68%) agree more needs to be done to tackle prejudice against people living with HIV in the UK
NAT (National AIDS Trust) today launches its fourth survey ’HIV: Public Knowledge and Attitudes 2010’, conducted by Ipsos MORI amongst adults aged 16+ in Great Britain. The report reveals a worrying decline in knowledge and understanding of HIV over the past ten years.
Dispelling the transmission myths and misconceptions
The survey revealed HIV transmission to be an area of great confusion among the British public. One in five people (20%) failed to identify sex without a condom between two men as a way in which HIV can be passed on when shown a list of possible routes. This was particularly marked amongst African and Caribbean communities, who are more than twice as likely not to mention sex without a condom between two men as an HIV transmission route (49% African/Caribbean vs. 20% overall).
A fifth of people also didn’t identify sex without a condom between a man and a woman as an HIV transmission route. These figures have fallen by 11 and eight percentage points respectively in the last decade. Overall, one in 12 adults (8%) did not identify sex without a condom – whether heterosexual or homosexual – as an HIV transmission route.
In addition, less than half of the public (45%) believe HIV can be passed from person to person by sharing needles or syringes. Only three in ten (30%) were able to correctly identify all the ways HIV can and cannot be passed on. The figures also showed one in ten people incorrectly believe HIV can be transmitted through impossible routes such as kissing (9%) and spitting (10%). Even more worryingly, these percentages have doubled since 2007 (from 4% and 5% respectively).
These figures reveal a distinct lack of knowledge around how HIV is passed on from person to person, and one in six people (17%) don’t feel they know enough about how to prevent HIV transmission during sex.
Reality of HIV in the UK
The survey also looks at general knowledge of HIV in the UK today. Encouragingly, the majority of the public (70%) were aware it was false that if someone becomes infected with HIV in the UK they would probably die within three years. However, one in ten (11%) still believe this to be true. Other misconceptions also remained, with two-fifths (42%) believing an HIV test will only provide a reliable result three months after possible infection, and nearly half (47%) thinking there are no effective ways of preventing a pregnant mother with HIV from passing HIV on to her baby during pregnancy and childbirth.
The reality is, a person can get a reliable HIV test from one month after potential infection (though a confirmatory test at three months is often recommended), and advances in treatment and routine testing of pregnant women also means an HIV positive mother has more than a 99% chance of going on to have a healthy baby if the correct steps are taken.
It is important for the public to be aware of these facts, as knowledge can curb the unnecessary fears around HIV which prevent testing and make disclosure of HIV status difficult. Positively, more than two-fifths (44%) said they would be interested to hear more about the reality of HIV in the UK today and this figure rises to 52% amongst 16-24 year olds.
Deborah Jack, Chief Executive of NAT (National AIDS Trust), comments:
‘As the number of people with HIV in the UK approaches 100,000, it is crucial for everyone to understand the facts around how HIV is passed on so they can protect themselves and others. Whilst HIV disproportionately affects gay men and Africans, the number of people with HIV who are not in these groups is steadily rising, and unfortunately there does still remain a serious amount of confusion around HIV transmission. Many people are unaware of the basics such as using a condom to protect themselves, whilst myths such as transmission from kissing and spitting are still perpetuated.
‘One of the most concerning aspects of this survey is the fact that knowledge of HIV transmission amongst the general public has declined significantly over the last ten years. With the number of HIV infections in the UK still going up, one in six people feeling they do not know enough about how to prevent HIV transmission during sex is simply too high. When it comes to protecting yourself from HIV infection, knowledge is power. The Government must take the lead in acting to improve understanding and so protect public health.’
Public attitudes to HIV
An important aspect of the survey was assessing how supportive the wider public are of people with HIV and the extent to which stigma and discrimination still linger in our society. Positively, the figures did show that most of the public have a supportive attitude, with two thirds (67%) saying they have sympathy for people with HIV and three quarters (74%) agreeing people with HIV deserve the same level of support and respect as people with cancer.
However, a significant minority of people continue to hold stigmatising and discriminatory views. One in ten adults (11%) claimed not to have much sympathy towards people with HIV, and this figure rose to a three in ten (30%) towards those infected with HIV through unprotected sex. Given 95% of people with HIV were infected through unprotected sex; this is an extremely worrying figure.
Personal feelings towards people living with HIV were also an issue. One in five people felt it would damage their relationship with a family member (19%) and neighbour (23%) if they found out they were HIV positive. In employment, despite two thirds of people (67%) agreeing they would be comfortable working with a colleague who had HIV, more than one in ten (13%) admitted they would not be comfortable with this. This figure was almost the same five years ago (11%) – showing certain attitudes have not shifted.
Interestingly, over a third of the public (38%) think their employer should tell them if one of their colleagues is HIV positive. This view of having a ‘right to know’ is completely unnecessary as there is no risk of HIV transmission in everyday work situations. Such prejudicial views are examples of how stigma can undermine rights to privacy and confidentiality.
The majority of the public (64%) believe that there is still a great deal of stigma in the UK today around HIV and a similar proportion agree it is right there are laws to protect people with HIV from discrimination (69%) and that more needs to be done to tackle prejudice against people living with HIV in the UK (68%). However, the figures showed that women were more likely than men to agree that more needs to be done to tackle prejudice (73% vs. 62%).
Deborah Jack, Chief Executive of NAT (National AIDS Trust), concludes:
‘It is certainly positive to see the majority of the public have supportive attitudes towards people with HIV, but there are still huge gaps in awareness of what it means to live with HIV in the UK today. For example, the fact that an HIV positive mother can have a healthy baby and being HIV positive can still mean a near normal lifespan.
‘Whilst HIV treatment has advanced rapidly in the last ten years, knowledge and attitudes have sadly not kept pace – resulting in stigma and discrimination. Successfully addressing HIV stigma is vital, not just so people living with HIV are treated fairly, but also so everyone feels confident to test for HIV and talk about HIV related risk.
‘The survey indicates there is a link between knowledge and attitude. Those who understand the facts about HIV transmission are more likely to have a supportive attitude than those who are confused or hold false beliefs. Stigma and discrimination is born out of fear of infection (based on misconception around transmission) or perceptions and judgements about people who have HIV.
It is extremely important that inroads are made in terms of educating the general public so we can eradicate the prejudice which still exists around HIV. In addition to improving knowledge of HIV, intensive work also needs to go into tackling the often deep-seated judgments and beliefs held about HIV and the people affected. The Government made a concerted and effective effort to tackle this stigma in mental health, and now it is time for HIV to be addressed in the same way.’