Exactly twenty years ago, Elizabeth Glaser was on the cover of People Magazine. (For some reason, it’s not letting me link just the article, but here’s the PDF of the whole issue, and here’s the second cover story about Elizabeth that the magazine did, this one when she died.) I read the article about her – it remains the most important article I’ve ever read in my life, sent my first donation to her foundation, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the early 1990s, a friend of my mom’s said the fact that my mom was allowing me to spend the summer alongside someone living with HIV was akin to child abuse. And then the mother of the kids I babysat told me not to let her kids drink out of my cup anymore because, though I was HIV-negative, my proximity to people who were positive made her scared. There were terrible things in the news about HIV back then, kids getting banned from school, people being fired from their jobs just because of their status. I remember wanting to prove to Elizabeth that being around her didn’t make me afraid, and so I purposely drank from the bottle of water on her desk. (It didn’t occur to me until years later that perhaps she didn’t want to share a drink with me.)
Time has passed. Things have changed. And then, some things haven’t. The other day I was talking to an acquaintance and he said, “It seems that schools aren’t emphasizing AIDS education they way they used to. Kids need to know how you can get HIV.” I agreed; but then he went on, “Like from kissing, because of saliva.”
“They can’t get HIV through saliva,” I said.
“But it’s a bodily fluid, and you can get it through bodily fluids,” he argued.
“Not this one,” I said. “Trust me, I’ve shared countless drinks with people who have HIV, and I’m still negative.”
“I’m risk averse," he said.
It was all I could do not to shout: “But we're talking about something that has NO risk!”
I thought that was something most people knew, but when I mentioned the conversation to a couple friends, they also seemed unconvinced. So here it is: Yes, there have been traces of HIV found in the saliva and tears of some infected people, but the amounts are so low that the virus cannot be transmitted. The Centers for Disease Control has found NO cases in which HIV has been transmitted to an uninfected person in saliva or tears alone. Also of note, HIV has not been found in sweat, and sweat has never been found to transmit HIV. More about this here and here.
And so you CANNOT contract HIV from kissing someone who has it (the only possible exception is if the infected person has an open wound in his or her mouth; but even in that case, skin is a barrier to transmission, so you’d have to have a cut in your mouth too). You CANNOT contract HIV from sharing a drink with someone who is HIV-positive, and you CANNOT get it from shaking hands, or being spit upon, or a hug, or a toilet seat, or a mosquito bite.
I understand being scared of germs because I’m pretty germ-phobic myself. I used to swipe extra hand sanitizer wipes from restaurants, just in case someone sneezed nearby me. Oh, my excitement when portable bottles of Purell were invented. There is always one in my purse. At sleep-away camp the summer before eighth grade, we all stashed soda under our beds, and people would pass the bottles around without hesitation. But I was afraid of mono, so I didn’t let anyone drink my coke except for my friend Llen, who I’d known for years so her germs didn’t scare me. Put out, one of my bunkmates called me a snob.
I’m still weird when it comes to germs. I’m grossed out by myself when I have a cold, and I’m only comfortable letting my really close friends drink out of my cup. It just so happens that two of those friends are living with HIV.
If you’re not sharing a drink with someone who has HIV because you’re not sharing drinks with anyone, I get it. But if you’re not sharing a drink with someone who has HIV because of HIV, well, that really doesn’t make any sense.
And yet, I think that HIV is very, very scary. I wish it were covered by the mainstream media more. In the nineties, besides Elizabeth, Ryan White, Alison Gertz, Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe were all on the cover of People – not at the same time; these were separate stories about HIV. (They were on the covers of other magazines too, but People was the one we got at our house.) I can’t remember the last time I saw HIV as the cover story of a national magazine (not including POZ, which dedicates every issue to HIV), even though the number of people living with the virus is at an all-time high. I’ve seen up close how tough it is to live with – and it’s 100% preventable, by the way. Here are the three ways to contract it: (1) Through contact with infected blood (e.g., tainted blood tranfusions, or sharing needles with someone who is infected), (2) through sex with an infected partner, or (3) an infected mother can pass the virus to her baby in utero or through her breast milk.
So know your status, know your partners’ status, and be safe. If you have sex, use a condom, because latex is a barrier to HIV too.
In the interest of practicing what I preach, I occasionally get tested for HIV. And I am negative. I have shared drinking glasses with my HIV-positive friends, and sat on the same toilet seats, and double-dipped fries into ketchup, and hugged them and cried with them. We may have even been stung by the same mosquitoes from time to time. I am HIV-negative. I am risk-averse, too: I know how HIV is transmitted and I won’t put myself at risk. The greater risk, to me, is letting ignorance and misunderstanding about this disease get in the way of a couple really important friendships. That is likewise something that I will never, ever do.