On getting the facts right

This is not what I had planned for today.  But I needed to vent.  In fact, I needed to vent last night but didn’t feel like powering up the computer at 11pm for a rant.

I finally finished Inferno last night.  That in itself is reason to rant, but the full review is on its way.  However, on the tedious slog to the finish line I came across a sentence that quite literally made me cringe.

On page 434 of the hardcover edition Mr Brown uses this sentence:  “And the HIV virus attacked the immune system, causing the disease AIDS.”

In South Africa HIV and AIDS is a pretty big issue, with about a third of the population infected and more than two thirds affected.  In the people-oriented professions like social work, counselling, teaching, community development and the medical professions it is something we have to deal with every day.  Consequently, during my studies the facts about this condition was thoroughly drilled into my mind (and I’m reading a book about it again for my Master’s) and I get quite riled up if people spout a bunch of nonsense about it.

So, what’s wrong with this sentence?  First, HIV stands for “human immunodeficiency virus”.  “Virus” is part of the acronym.  Speaking of the HIV virus is essentially speaking about the human immunodeficiency virus virus.  Do you hear how silly that sounds?  And people keep on doing that.

Second, AIDS is not a disease.  It’s a syndrome.  It’s in the acronym:  Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.  A syndrome is a collection of symptoms that occur together that are characteristic of a particular condition.  In the case of AIDS, those symptoms are a collection of diseases like TB, chronic pneumonia and rare cancers to name just a few, that normally don’t occur in people with a healthy immune system.  AIDS is not a disease, but a condition in which you have a whole bunch of scary diseases at the same time due to your immune system being weakened by the HI virus (see what I did there, Mr Brown?)

But I probably can’t be too hard on Mr Brown.  A quick Google search told me even Wikipedia and US federal sites describe AIDS as a disease.  Apparently even people supposed to know the facts can’t be bothered to check them.  Still, why couldn’t he simply write, “And HIV attacked the immune system, causing AIDS.”?

On a related note, if you ever have to write about HIV and AIDS, please remember that they’re not the same thing.  HIV refers to a virus.  AIDS refers to a syndrome.  Sure, they’re related, the latter being caused by the former, but they’re not the same thing.  HIV itself has no symptoms aside from a declining white blood cell count, and that you can only tell through blood tests.  AIDS has a host of symptoms, caused by various simultaneous infections, and can occur anything from eighteen months to twenty years (or even longer) after infection, depending on lifestyle and treatment.  So, one should actually refer to HIV and AIDS and not, like is the norm in many countries, to HIV/AIDS, which can make one think the terms are interchangeable.

And while I’m on a roll, just in case someone reading this doesn’t know, please remember that anyone can get infected with HIV.  The virus spreads through bodily fluids, like blood, semen, vaginal fluid, pus and even saliva and urine (though the viral concentration in the last two is usually not high enough to pose any risk).  Touching the blood or other bodily excretions of another person can place you at risk of getting HIV (aside from other fun infections like Hepatitis), especially if you have a sore on your hands (that can be as small as a torn cuticle).  Maybe you’re one of those amazing people that always stops and helps if you come across an accident scene, and that’s great, but then make sure you always have latex gloves in your car.  If you do come into contact with blood, even of a person you know, get yourself tested.

You won’t “catch” HIV from someone by kissing them, but frenching someone with the virus becomes significantly more risky if you have, for example, a cold sore or a throat infection that can give the virus access to your bloodstream (and you shouldn’t be making out with someone if you’re sick anyway).  By the way, the same applies to oral sex, drinking urine or taking golden showers if you’re the kind of person who likes that – chance of infection is low, but any open sores increase your risk (aside from the fact that it can lead to a bunch of other infections).

You’re not going to get HIV from someone by sharing a cup, or eating utensils, or a toilet seat, or by giving them a hug.  In fact, someone with HIV runs a greater risk of catching something potentially deadly for them from you.

HIV can only be transferred through bodily fluids, and the main mode remains sexual intercourse.  Women are at greater risk because they are in contact with the virus in the man’s semen longer after sex (not to mention damage to the vaginal wall if things get a bit rough.  Taking a shower after sex is not a safeguard against infection.  Risk of infection increases exponentially if either partner already has a sexually transmitted infection.  Risk is also greater if either partner has a yeast infection, or a sore on the genitals.

The single best safeguard against infection is to abstain from sex until you’re in a permanent, committed relationship.  Once you’re in that relationship, be faithful to your partner, in other words, don’t cheat.  Not only will it protect you against HIV and other STIs, but it’s kind of crucial if you want a healthy, stable, fulfilling intimate relationship with another person.

I wish I could stop there, but we humans seem to have a big problem with sticking to these simple guidelines.  Cheating is not going to go away soon, as we much rather think about our own immediate pleasure than about the person we profess to love.  Let’s not even get into couples that “cheat” with consent in open relationships or through swinging, or an article I read recently arguing that monogamous relationships are unnatural and a form of oppression.

Whatever your reasons may be, if A and B seems like too much to ask from you, at least take option C:  use a condom.  Sure, they’re messy and they rob one of some of the sensation, but rather that than infecting yourself and the partner who thinks you love them.


And if you know someone with HIV or AIDS, remember:  that’s still a human being and one facing a very scary future at that.  It shouldn’t matter how they became infected.  No one deserves to get HIV.  What they do deserve and need is your compassion and care because no one has to face what they’re going through alone.

9 thoughts on “On getting the facts right

  1. I haven’t read Inferno. Wholly understand your rant! The ‘HIV Virus’ gaffe would, indeed, seem to be classic Brownian sloppiness…But I doubt he has much real idea about science in any case. In ‘Angels and Demons’, among other silliness he could have fixed had he read a high school physics text, he insisted that the antiparticle of the proton was the electron. Que? The antiparticle of the proton is the anti-proton; the antiparticle of the electron is the positron. This, of course, was the book where he had his hero fall 10,000 feet without a parachute, slowed only by a piece of helicopter windscreen, splashing into the Tiber and walking away unscathed. The formula for the acceleration forces on impact is a = delta V/delta T – which, assuming he reached a terminal velocity of 44.7 m/s (100 mph…not bad with a helicopter windshield as parachute) and decelerated on water impact to zero in 0.05 of a second (generous) implies a peak force of 91.1 gravities on his mortal frame, plus the second-order jolt effects ( j = delta a/delta t) that would induce much, much higher instantaneous accelerations. Oh hey, the word is ‘splat’.

    But maybe Brown’s books are set in an alternative universe where everything is different. Including the laws of physics, though as a friend of mine’s pointed out, if you monkey with one of them (gravity, for instance, to let Langdon plop into the Tiber without suffering multiple compound fractures, soft-tissue tearing etc) you’ll destabilise the rest and the universe would end up being not only stranger than we imagine…but stranger than we can imagine.

    I could carry on, but I’ll wait for the review! Oh, and possibly extend this comment into a post on my blog…you’ve set me off ranting about Mr Brown now… 🙂


    1. So very sorry for inspiring a rant 😉 Looking forward to reading it, though. Your rants are always exceedingly educational.

      I’ll have the review up by Friday, so I won’t say anymore right now apart from don’t waste your money or time.


  2. Even though I never extensively studied HIV/AIDS (we only covered the basics in school) , I already knew most of what you’ve told us. It makes me sad that a high profile writer like this neither knows nor is bothered to check the facts before he publishes..

    About the condoms, there is absolutely no reason to have unprotected sex with someone before you’re both tested. There are so many different condoms especially designed for giving extra pleasure, for both him and her. So.. Don’t be a fool, wrap your… Well you know how it goes 😉


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