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Understanding AIDS Phobia

A Paralyzing Fear of an HIV Infection that Doesn't Exist

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Updated May 06, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

There are two diseases that strike fear in most everyone; "cancer," and "AIDS." And that fear is completely rational and understandable. But in the matter of AIDS, what happens if that fear takes control of your life? What if you fear the possibility of being infected with HIV so much you are unable to go on with your day to day life? When you fear the potential of infection or fear that you have already been infected even in the face of a handful of negative HIV tests, you may be suffering from a real condition called AIDS phobia. After 14 years of caring for people living with HIV and counseling those who think they have been infected, I've seen that AIDS phobia is real and have also seen how people can better manage their fears.

What Is AIDS Phobia?

Phobia is "an irrational or obsessive fear or anxiety, usually regarding something particular," according to Webster's Dictionary. AIDS phobia, then, is an irrational fear of HIV and AIDS. While it is understandable to be afraid of becoming infected, those with AIDS phobia have irrational fears. Fear takes control of your life, out of proportion from your actual risk, and makes it almost impossible to carry on day to day. It's a fear so strong and overwhelming that even a negative HIV test will not put the fear to rest. There are people so convinced they are infected that all the negative tests in the world won't ease their fear. Feeding their fear is the concept of acute HIV. Acute HIV is the period of seroconversion when symptoms and HIV infection are present but their test is negative; negative because the body has not had enough time to produce detectable HIV antibodies. People will explain their negative tests on acute HIV, even if the time for acute HIV has long passed.

There is another group of people who would do absolutely anything to avoid getting infected. HIV prevention is a good thing, but people with AIDS phobia take HIV prevention to another level.

HIV Prevention to the Extreme

There is another aspect of AIDS phobia that some refer to as a silent epidemic. Because of an overwhelming fear of being infected with HIV, some people take dramatic steps to avoid infection. You might think of a mailman who will not deliver mail to the local HIV; or a man who baths in the dark for fear of finding Kaposi's Sarcoma lesions; or a woman who refuses to donate blood. In these examples, people are so fearful of getting HIV infected they take irrational means to prevent being exposed.

What's the Trigger - Why Do People Develop AIDS Phobia?

The reason people develop phobias is not clearly understood. The fact that phobias are defined as irrational may say a little about their cause. However, there are theories as to the cause of phobias. Some experts feel it may be a matter of genetics; the tendency to develop a phobia may be part of your genetic make-up.

There's another theory that people may develop phobias as a result of the events and experiences of their lives. A fear of the water for example may result from knowing someone who drowned. Likewise, someone may develop AIDS phobia because they know others who have AIDS or are aware of what life with HIV is like.

Another factor that can precipitate AIDS phobia is guilt from an act the person perceives as wrong and which could have exposed him to HIV. Typically these are sexual encounters the person regrets: for instance, a married man who has sex with a prostitute, commits adultery, or has his first sexual encounter with another man. These circumstances carry the risk of HIV; add to that the guilt the person feels for the act and AIDS phobia may results. In these circumstances, people continue to obsess over the encounter even after several negative HIV tests. Despite the negative HIV tests, the person finds it hard to believe that he or she has not been HIV infected. In their mind, HIV infection is a natural result of the act they consider to be wrong. They feel HIV infection is their punishment for what they have done. Even if the HIV tests are initially negative, the person feels they will eventually be positive because after all they need to be "punished" for their wrong.

Finally, many people believe culture plays a role in the development of phobias. A person's beliefs, cultural surroundings, and religion can feed AIDS phobia. Certain cultures view people with AIDS with prejudice, discrimination, and ignorance. Those who share that perspective fear being lumped into that group mistreatment. Thus, people with AIDS phobias may fear being treated the way they see HIV positive people being treated.

Fighting AIDS Phobia

As irrational and consuming AIDS phobia can be, it can be avoided if you understand the cause of phobias in general and you understand HIV and how it is spread from person to person. Knowing these things helps you avoid the paralyzing fear of AIDS phobia.
  • Understand the ways HIV spreads from person to person; specifically having contact with infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluids as well as ingesting breast milk of an infected woman.
  • Remember that casual contact such as kissing and hugging and sharing utensils, glassware, or towels are not ways to get infected with HIV.
  • Realize that you can protect yourself from HIV by using condoms during every anal, oral, or vaginal sexual encounter.
  • Understand that today's HIV tests are very accurate and can be depended upon to give you reliable results you can count on.
Sources

Fritscher, L.; "What Causes Phobias?"; About.com: Phobias; 18 Jul 2008; Retrieved from http://phobias.about.com/od/causesanddevelopment/f/phobiacauses.htm.

Persaud, R.; "AIDS Phobia: An Epidemic of Fear"; Healthy Place; 7 Dec 2008.

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