Aashna Shah 1st December 2018
Of about 66 million people living in the UK, more than 101,000 are living with HIV, according to recent estimates from the Terence Higgins Trust, with around 8,000 of those thought to be undiagnosed. Globally, there are an estimated 36.7 million people who have the virus, with as many as 9.4 million of potentially unaware they have it.
This year’s theme for World AIDS Day, which marks its 30th anniversary, is “Know your status”.
The groups most disproportionately affected by HIV are men who have sex with men, and men and women of African-origin, according to the Terence Higgins Trust. These are certainly not the only groups affected though, as anyone can catch HIV in a number of different ways, so it’s important for everyone to get tested. For many of us, this still sounds like a pretty daunting prospect, but it really doesn’t have to be.
The Overtake spoke with Anthea Morris, director of Better2Know, one of the UK’s largest private providers of sexual health testing services, to clear up some of the misconceptions around HIV and HIV testing.
Though HIV is certainly a serious condition, it’s important to realise that many fears which surround HIV are to some extent unjustified, because many misconceptions still persist.
Fear of what will happen if the test comes back positive is a major factor in why many people are hesitant to get tested, says Turner. But this is often based on outdated ideas about what a HIV-positive diagnosis might actually mean, and ultimately, ignorance is not bliss where HIV is concerned. If you have it, it’s much better to know, so that you can receive treatment. The anxiety of not knowing could also be as worrying as the thought of finding out, so chances are you’ll take some relief from knowing one way or another.
Stigma surrounding HIV is still a very real issue, and this makes worse the suffering of those who are concerned or find out they’re HIV positive. Issues relating to this stigma make people more hesitant to get tested, according to Turner, who says that people are often worried “about someone finding out they have had an HIV test, and drawing conclusions that they have had unsafe or high risk sex”. Not wanting to be seen waiting for a test is another factor.
People no longer need to die from HIV
But in reality, thanks to some serious advances in treatment in recent decades, this fear is largely unwarranted. According to Turner, the common perception that a postitive HIV diagnosis is a “death sentence” is totally inaccurate, as is the idea that “you have done something wrong if you are HIV-positive,” and “HIV-positive people should be avoided”.
“People no longer need to die from HIV. A positive diagnosis means a lifestyle change in order to stay well. Thankfully, medical advancements have reduced most people’s medication to one pill a day, but it is important to remember to take that pill every day for the rest of your life.”
As well as getting tested, it’s particularly important for society in general to understand the realities of HIV, and to put an end to this stigma, which, unfortunately, Turner still sees the devastating effects of all too often.
“In May 2018, we had a male patient, aged 37, in Manchester who was diagnosed with HIV. He was very scared and thought he was going to die that day. He was scared and worried about the reaction he was going to get from his family, friends and work colleagues. He threatened to take his own life.”
The work done by sexual health services providers, like Better2Know, is often instrumental in not only helping patients obtain a diagnosis, but supporting them throughout the entire process, and offering advice.
“After our intervention, we talked to him about his fears, we helped educate him about how HIV can be easily-managed, and got him to the further testing and treatment that he needed.
“He is now under the care of one of our doctors, with his life on track and an undetectable viral load. This means he is not going to pass the virus on.”
For those concerned about the effect that a HIV-postive diagnosis might have on their professional life, or simply don’t wish to share that information with their employer, Turner says there’s rarely a need to.
“You do not have to tell your work that you are HIV positive, unless you are in certain professions like healthcare.
World AIDS Day is an opportunity to show solidarity with everyone affected by HIV and call for an end to all barriers to testing, including stigma and ignorance surrounding the virus.
But it’s also about recognising the struggle that has come before. If we were to stop talking about HIV we would be doing a disservice to those whose voices were silenced too soon; whose fate may have been different had they been born in a different time. As the lucky ones here today, surviving and thriving, we owe them the respect to carry on the conversation about HIV, and keep up the fight against it.
A number of events are scheduled to coincide with World AIDS Day spread all across the country, including charity galas, dances and more. To find out if there are any events near you, check the events page on the World AIDS day website. But if you only do one thing today, find out where you can get an HIV test done and make plans to get one. You can check the NHS website to find your nearest testing services.
Main Image: Linda Rehlin
Aashna Shah 1st December 2018