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British public still in the dark about HIV 30 years on.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Less than half (45%) of the British public understand how HIV is and isn’t transmitted, new research reveals today[1]. NAT (National AIDS Trust) research commissioned from Ipsos MORI also reveals an increase in myths and misunderstanding about HIV. It found:

  • Almost a third (28%) of people wrongly think you can get HIV from impossible routes such as kissing; sharing a glass; spitting; from a public toilet seat; coughing or sneezing. This is up from 18% in 2010.
  • One in ten (9%) think if you get HIV you will probably die within three years[2]. In fact if you are diagnosed in good time and are on effective HIV treatment you can expect to have a normal lifespan[3]. 
  • Almost one in five (17%) don’t know that HIV is passed on through sex without a condom between a man and a woman. And a similar proportion (19%) don’t know that HIV is passed on through sex without a condom between two men.
  • Only 65% of the public can identify all three correct routes of HIV transmission– condom-less sex between a man and a women, condom-less sex between two men and sharing needles or syringes.
  • A quarter of the public don’t know that HIV is passed on through sharing needles or syringes. However, this is in an improvement from 2010, when 55% didn’t identify this route. 

Deborah Gold, chief executive, NAT (National AIDS Trust), said: “It is alarming to see just how many people believe you can get HIV from kissing, sneezing, or coughing. Lack of understanding leads to stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV. This is taking us straight back to the early 80s – and this time we don’t have the excuse of not knowing better.”

This is further evidenced in the research - 37% of people felt they should be told if one of their work colleagues is HIV positive. A completely unnecessary requirement as it would be impossible to transmit HIV in a day-to-day working environment. Deborah comments:” Our research shows a great deal of misunderstanding about HIV transmission. And this misplaced fear is trumping someone’s right to privacy and respect.”   

Public attitudes to people living with HIV have improved slightly with time, in 2014 79% of people said people with HIV deserve the same support as those with cancer; in 2010 it was 74% and in 2007 it was 70%[4].

Deborah continues:” Although there has been some modest improvement in attitudes in recent years, and a majority hold supportive attitudes to varying degrees, significant minorities do not.  And these minorities are large enough to make life difficult for far too many people with HIV. Nearly a quarter (23%) say they don’t have much sympathy for people with HIV infected through unprotected sex, though this is down from 30% in 2010. Ninety-five percent of people with HIV acquired it through unprotected sex[5]. 

A lack of understanding about how you get HIV is also fuelling the ongoing HIV epidemic – with 6,000 new HIV diagnoses last year in the UK[6]. The report found just 21% of people know that if someone is on effective treatment they have an extremely low chance of passing HIV on through sex[7], a key method of HIV prevention[8].

Deborah concludes: “To address this pervasive lack of understanding about HIV, NAT is calling for all sexually active adults to be informed about HIV transmission risks and the effectiveness of modern HIV treatment. In all four nations of the UK the NHS, and national and local government need to find innovative and cost-effective ways to improve public understanding of HIV and so prevent HIV transmission, promote respect and challenge stigma. 

“We also want to see the Governments in all four nations of the UK, as a matter of urgency, develop and implement strategies to reduce HIV stigma in society.  All relevant stakeholders (for example the NHS, schools, local government …) need to be involved both in the development of the strategy and then in its delivery.”  

One way you can address HIV stigma in the UK is by wearing a red ribbon on World AIDS Day. Tweet a photo of yourself wearing your ribbon using #PutARibbonOnIt or email it to for your photo to be added to our gallery at” 

Notes to the editor:

HIV…Public Knowledge and Attitudes 2014

Full copies of the report can be downloaded here:

For further information and statistics please contact:

Suzi Price, Communications and Marketing Manager, NAT
020 7814 6733


NAT (National AIDS Trust) is the UK’s leading charity dedicated to transforming society’s response to HIV. We provide fresh thinking, expert advice and practical resources. We campaign for change.

Shaping attitudes. Challenging injustice. Changing lives.

Technical details

1,992 interviews were conducted amongst adults aged 16+ across Great Britain from 24th October – 2nd November 2014.  All respondents were interviewed face-to-face, in-home using Ipsos MORI’s nationally representative omnibus survey. Results are weighted to the known population profile of Great Britain.

[1] Respondents were presented with a list of options, including the three main routes of HIV transmission (sex without a condom between a man and a woman, sex without a condom between two men, and by sharing needles or syringes) and a number of impossible routes (kissing; sharing a glass; spitting; from a toilet seat; coughing or sneezing). Respondents were asked; ‘In which of the following ways, if any, do you think HIV can be passed from person to person? Please select all that apply.’ 45% selected all three likely routes without selecting any impossible ones.

[2] When presented with the statement; ‘In the UK, if someone becomes infected with HIV they will probably die within 3 years’, respondents were asked whether they were; certain that the statement is true; feel that the statement is true; certain that the statement is false; feel that the statement is false; or don’t know.

[3] INSIGHT SMART, ESPRIT Study Groups. Mortality in well controlled HIV in the continuous antiretroviral therapy arms of the SMART and ESPRIT trials compared with the general population. AIDS 2013, 27:973–979

[4] Respondents were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with the statement, ‘people with HIV deserve the same level of support and respect as people with cancer.’

[5] Public Health England.  National HIV Surveillance Data Tables.  Table 1 A. 2014.

[6]Public Health England. HIV Annual Report, 2014.

[7] When presented with the statement; ‘The risk of someone who is taking effective HIV treatment passing on HIV through sex is extremely low’, respondents were asked whether they were; certain that the statement is true; feel that the statement is true; certain that the statement is false; feel that the statement is false; or don’t know.

[8]. The British HIV Association (BHIVA) and the Expert Advisory Group on AIDS (EAGA). Position statement on the use of antiretroviral therapy to reduce HIV transmission, January

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