'Positive' author debunks myths common myths about HIV

Courtesy of Paige Rawl

Paige Rawl is the author of "Positive" a memoir documenting her life since she was diagnosed HIV-positive when she was in middle school. "Positive" is the latest pick for TODAY's Book Club. Head here for more information

HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, is commonly seen as something incredibly grave — even a death sentence. But it's not.

Despite medications changing the perception of HIV as a death sentence, it is still one of the leading killers worldwide, as it can lead to AIDS and AIDS-related illnesses.

But there is one important distinction: Living with HIV is not the same thing as AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome. A person isn’t considered to have AIDS until their CD4 (a type of white blood cell) counts have reached 200 or below.

This isn't the only misconception about HIV or AIDS.

The first cases of AIDS were found among gay men and intravenous drug users. When HIV was first discovered, it was referred to as a “cancer among gays,” and was known as GRID, or Gay Related Immune Deficiency. Because it was believed HIV only affected gay men and drug users, the disease became a stigma. This stigma still stands today, even after years of research have proven that HIV does not discriminate — it can happen to anyone.

The travel ban that prevented HIV-positive people from entering the United States was lifted just five years ago. Can you imagine being denied entry to a country because of something that you had no control over? Something that wasn't your fault?

Paige at Camp Kindle, a camp for children who have been affected in some way by HIV/AIDS.Today

Even today, after 30 years, myths about the disease persist and people still discriminate against those who are HIV-positive. Some of the most common misconceptions: that you can contract HIV from a hug, kiss, toilet seat, or even from a mosquito that has previously bitten a person with HIV or AIDS.

All of these myths are just that: myths. 

HIV can be passed only through four bodily fluids; blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk.

As a society, we have made strides with HIV/AIDS education, but we still have a long way to go. There’s not yet a cure, but advances in treatment or preventionare being made every year.

The first medication to treat HIV/AIDS AZTwasn’t approved until the late 1980s. Within just several years, patients were taking around 20 pills a day, morning and night. Today, some HIV-positive patients can live a normal, healthy life with just one pill a day. In addition, people now have the option of over 25 different medications to choose from — although, as with most medications, not everything works for everyone.

Yet even with all of this progress, HIV/AIDS remains a worldwide epidemic. In the United States alone, someone contracts HIV every nine-and-a-half minutes.

Until there is an actual cure for HIV/AIDS, the only cure we have is education. If we continue teaching in schools, reminding people that this disease is still a problem today, we can help reduce the stigma against people with HIV/AIDS and we can help prevent its spread.

Head here for more information on TODAY's Book Club and Paige Rawl's memoir "Positive," and head here to join the online conversation with Rawl from The Atlantic + MAC AIDS Fund Town Hall on Activism Nov. 14.