You may remember a week or so back I posted about a new HIV awareness campaign in England called ‘It Starts With Me’ – designed to educate people about HIV, how it’s spread, how it’s prevented and what they can do to fight HIV.
Well the campaign is really in full swing now, with events and awareness materials rolling out across England.
Yesterday I returned from a trip to Berlin with my friend Anthony to find a ‘It Starts With Me’ t-shirt waiting on my door step. So I popped it on and took a few snaps, you’ll probably see me at a few events up and down the country – including pride events wearing it, talking to people about their attitudes towards sexual health, testing and HIV.
Some quick HIV related facts from the It Starts With Me website:
- 1 in 4: The number of people with HIV in the UK aren’t aware that they have it
- 10 years: how much shorter your life could be if you delay testing
- 8 in 10: gay men get HIV from someone who doesn’t know they have it
- 25-29: the age group in which the most gay men test HIV positive
- 96%: Treatment for HIV can make you upto 96% less infectious to others
Please make sure to head over to the It Starts With Me website to find out more about HIV, and how YOU can stop it in its tracks.
Just a quick note to let you know that the March 2013 issue of ATTITUDE Magazine is out now, and wow is it a tasty one! This month is is ATTITUDE’s famed ‘Naked Issue’ – featuring toned torsos and buttocks from the likes of Shayne Ward and Colin Gentry.
But fear not dear reader it’s not all style and no substance, this Naked Issue ATTITUDE have teamed up with NAT (National AIDS Trust) to talk about safer sex, condom use, HIV and the importance of getting tested – a must read.
Oh, and don’t forget my column – this month I talk about how I’m having ups and downs with my medication but how I remain thankful that it’s now, and not 30 years ago. Find out why…
Lots of love,
Currently 100,000 people are estimated to be living with HIV in the UK, but an estimated 25% of those are undiagnosed.
That’s 25,000 people who have HIV and don’t know about it! As we come to the end of HIV Testing Week in the UK and approach World AIDS Day 2012 I put some of your questions about getting tested and HIV to Dr Sebastian Winckler from DrEd.
1. Why is it so important to get tested for HIV?
Early testing is vital both for you, and for the people you’re sleeping with.
If you’ve got HIV and you’re getting treatment you can expect to live 40 years longer than someone who isn’t receiving treatment.
If you’re taking antiretroviral medication, you become less infectious to other people. Being aware of your status means you can start putting certain measure in place (such as safe sex)
to prevent transmission, as well as looking after your own health.
2. What stops some people from getting tested?
There are a lots of reasons why people avoid HIV tests, but usually it’s down to:
- The stigma surrounding HIV and AIDs: Despite advancements in treatment, in some communities there is still stigma about being HIV+, so many people feel embarrassed about getting tested. Remember, there is no shame in being HIV+.
- The inconvenience of testing: If you work during the day, it can be hard work finding the time to go.
- Fear: Some people are simply scared off getting a result they don’t want to hear. Remember though, it’s better to get tested and treated rather than making yourself, or others, ill.
3. Where can I get tested?
HIV tests are available free and confidentially from:
- Sexual health (GUM) clinics
- HIV testing centres (Terrence Higgins Trust Fastest centres, for example)
- LGBT Centres
- GP’s and family doctors
- HIV tests are available to buy from:
- Private clinics
- Online doctors services
4. I haven’t had any symptoms, so I probably don’t have HIV, right?
Wrong. Most people will experience a short, flu-like illness about 2- 6 weeks after being infected. This is your immune system putting up an initial fight against the virus and can last for up to a month. But, this can be easily mistaken for the flu and 20% of people don’t experience any symptoms at all.
After this has gone away, you are unlikely to notice any other symptoms for a long period of time. So the only way of knowing for sure is getting yourself tested.
5. Can a test pick up any HIV infection, regardless of when I’ve caught it?
No. A certain amount of genetic material needs to build up in your system before it can be accurately detected by a test. The time taken for this to happen is called the ‘window period’ and this is different for every test.
- The standard antibody (Ab) test will pick up HIV if you caught it more than 3 months ago.
- The combined antibody/ antigen test (4th Generation test) will pick up HIV if you caught it more than 6 weeks ago.
- The HIV PCR test will pick up HIV if you caught it more than 7-10 days ago.
In most cases, you will be given either the standard antibody or combined test. If you test negative for these, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are HIV negative, because you might have been infected within the last 3 months (or 6 weeks). You are therefore advised to take a second test 3 months later for the all clear.
If you want a faster result you can pay for a PCR test. But these are only offered at some clinics and may cost up to £250.
6. I think I’ve caught HIV within the last few days, what do I do?
If you’re worried that you’ve contracted HIV very recently, as in, within the past 72 hours (3 days) then you should go to your local GUM clinic or A&E department and request emergency PEP treatment.
7. I’m afraid to get tested because I don’t like needles
HIV tests don’t have to be done via needle or syringe, some clinics use ‘Fastest’ Rapid Testing which simply takes a prick on the end of your finger. Other clinics may take oral swabs instead, this method is considered less effective than a blood test however, so some clinics won’t offer it.
8. How long do I have to wait for my results?
That depends on the clinic you go to. Most will contact you with your result (or ask you to come back in for it) within 3-5 days. If you take a rapid test your result will be ready within the hour. Some clinics can take up to 2 weeks however, don’t be afraid to ask when you should expect the results.
9. What happens if I test positive?
First off, a positive result doesn’t always mean you’re HIV+. There is a small margin of error, so all positive results must be followed up by a confirmation test.
If you do test positive for that, then the doctor or nurse who informs you of your result will set up a meeting with a specialist who can assess the stage of your infection and talk to you about relevant treatment options. You’ll be put in touch with local HIV support groups who can help you cope emotionally, and make you realise that a positive result is not the end.
Thirty years on and HIV is still a problem in the UK, but it is no longer a death sentence. There is help out there and the earlier you get tested, the better your prospects. Whatever you do, make sure you get tested this HIV Testing Week.
Some charities that can help:
I get dozens of emails each day from people who read my blog, follow me on twitter or have stumbled across me on Google. Some of these are thank you letters, some of these are abuse and some of these are questions. The two most common questions I get asked are “What is HIV?” and “How do I know if I have HIV?”.
If you’re gay there’s a good chance you know something about HIV, it’s in the gay press quite frequently, you and your friends likely go and get tested, you might even know someone who is HIV+. In straight world it’s a somewhat different affair though, it’s not mentioned. Many straight people don’t go for STI screenings, or know anyone who is HIV+. Then we wonder why the rate of infection amongst straight people is sky rocketing.
The problem lies squarely with the lack of awareness campaigns in the mainstream media. We’re bombarded daily with information and charity appeals for cancer, stroke, mental illness, heart disease, 5-a-day fruit and veg, smoking, alcohol etc, but when was the last time you saw a TV advert, a center-spread in a newspaper or a billboard about HIV?
As I see it, the only way to cut infection rates is to raise awareness of the virus, the way it’s transmitted, the effects, and how it can be prevented. But we have to be careful to not tread the same path as the 1980s campaign that used death, tombstones and fear as it’s central message. Scaring people doesn’t help, in fact quite the opposite, fear creates stigma which in turn widens the social divide.
The work of the gay press in promoting HIV campaigns and providing information is noble and should be applauded. But that message only reaches so far. With an estimated 20,000 plus people unknowingly living with HIV in the UK it’s time that the government picked up the torch and build a wide reaching, well thought out HIV awareness campaign – based on facts, understanding and compassion, and to bring that campaign into people’s lives through print, TV and the web.
So Department of Health, The NHS and Number 10 – it’s over to you. I’ll be waiting.
In order to fight the stigma that surrounds HIV people first need to understand HIV – only through understanding can people begin to accept something.
There are a lot of stories and myths circulating out there and people have a tendency to believe what they read, which is even more dangerous in the age of the internet, where an uninformed decision can be taken as fact. So I’ve compiled a short list of the myths I’ve come across in the hope that I can dispel them. Please share this article – via twitter, via facebook, via carrier pigeon – and let’s get the truth out there.
- I can get HIV from touching a HIV+ person.
No – you cannot. You also cannot get HIV by: kissing a HIV+, using the same toilet seat, sharing cutlery or cups, or having a HIV+ sneeze/cough on you. HIV is spread via blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk.
- I can get HIV from animals or insects
No – you cannot. HIV stands for Human Immunodefficiency Virus and is only carried by humans, you cannot get HIV from an animal or insect bite – even mosquitoes.
- HIV is a gay disease
Wrong again. HIV doesn’t discriminate, it infects anyone regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or religion. In fact in 2010 out of 69,400 people (confirmed diagnosed cases) living with HIV in the UK only 29,800 (which is 42.9%) were gay/bisexual men, which leaves 57.1% of the diagnoses firmly in the heterosexual camp*.
- You can tell when someone has HIV.
Unless you’re a trained virologist with a blood sample you cannot tell whether someone has HIV. There aren’t any visable signs, many people (like myself) won’t experience any symptoms of infection. The only way to know for sure is to ask them, and that’s only as good as their last test results.
- HIV and AIDS are two different diseases.
Incorrect. HIV is the culprit in both cases. HIV is a virus. AIDS is a condition. When someone is infected with HIV they are said to be HIV+ (or HIV Positive). AIDS (Acquired Immune Defficency Syndrome) occurs when a person’s immune system (or CD4 count) drops below a certain level, and it it is easier for opportune infections to take hold. A person suffering from AIDS can come out of AIDS with proper treatment and care. Many organisations, especially in the UK, no longer use the term AIDS but choose to use ‘Late stage HIV infection’ or ‘Advanced HIV infection’.
Ciao for now,
*Figures from the Health Protection Agency Report: HIV in the United Kingdom: 2011 Report (http://www.hpa.org.uk/webc/HPAwebFile/HPAweb_C/1317131685847)
When it comes to HIV there are a lot of medical terms bandied about, things like viral load, CD4, HART, ARV, advanced infection and resistance to name just a few, and if you (like me), are not a doctor these can initially be somewhat confusing. What I’m talking about today however is ‘Early Diagnosis’.
Early Diagnosis is just that, making a diagnosis of HIV in the early stages of the disease. Whilst there is no defined time scale for Early Diagnosis it’s widely taken to mean within a year of the initial infection.
What are the benefits to Early Detection?
- You can start receiving specialist care. Some people may not need treatment for years, others like myself, might start in a matter of months. But once you’re under the care of a HIV clinic their regular monitoring will make sure you stay in tip top condition and recommend treatment to you - when it’s appropriate.
- You’ll live longer. Studies have shown that the earlier you’re diagnosed the longer you’ll live. Things have come on in leaps and bounds in the last 30 years and someone diagnosed in their twenties will now live until their mid-seventies, and that’s without any advances in care that happen in the meantime.
- You can protect others. Knowledge is power. By knowing that you’re HIV+ you can inform past sexual partners that may have been at risk, and make more informed and responsible decisions with any future partners. Modern treatment can also reduce the risk of passing on the infection by upto 96%.
What are the challenges to Early Detection initiatives?
- Ignorance. Many people believe that they’ll know if/when they have HIV through symptoms such as a flu, or a rash. However, many people who contract HIV, myself included, show no symptoms at all, and even if they do experience flu like symptoms they may think it’s just the flu and nothing more serious.
- Fear. The idea that you may have HIV isn’t a nice one, in fact for most people it’s down right terrifying. This leads to people burying their heads in the sand and putting off testing. Other people are put off because they’re afraid of the tests themselves, when in fact most HIV testing is done in minutes with a simple prick test.
- Denial. I didn’t think I’d ever get HIV. I’m in my twenties, I was look after myself, HIV doesn’t happen to people like me does it? Wrong. HIV can happen to anyone, and at any time.
So, what next?
- Inform the masses. HIV awareness campaigns tend to be limited to niche publications, such as the gay press. I think there’s a pressing need for a national campaign, both in print and on TV, but unlike the adverts of the 80′s we need to inform, teach and encourage to test rather than shock and scare.
- Fight the stigma. There is still a lot of stigma surrounding people living with HIV, again this is firmly rooted in the 80′s where HIV and AIDS was portrayed as a dirty disease that affected dirty deviant people. We need to show that HIV affects people from all walks of life, and can be contracted in any manner of ways.
- Encourage testing. Through these new campagins, both nationally and targetted at specific communities, we need to encourage regular testing. Let people know that it takes only a few minutes, doesn’t involve needles and is free of charge.
Please, if you can, donate to one of the HIV charities and help them raise awareness and provide services. Consider reblogging/retweeting/facebooking/sharing this blog post to your followers and friends to do your part to raise awareness about the benefits of Early Detection. It only takes one click and could positively impact on any number of lives.
Love and respect,
Since I started this blog and my Twitter account a couple of months ago I have been inundated with messages, comments and tweets from people asking me questions about HIV, and whilst I’m by no means an expert I always endeavour to answer them to the best of my ability – and where I can’t I’ll refer them to one of the authoritative websites (like NAM, or THT). Some of the questions are from genuinely curious people, asking how it affects my day to day life, what treatment programme I’m on or how I’m coping with it – to name just a few.
Other questions I get asked, however, are far more worrying. Today, for example, I was asked in an email:
“How do I know if I have HIV? What are the symptoms?”.
The only way to tell whether you’re HIV+ (that means you have contracted the HIV virus) is to GET TESTED.
Yes it can be nerve-wracking going to get tested, we’ve all been there “Oh I’ll do it next week, next month, oh I’m busy then, I’ll do it next month” – putting it off and off, but all you’re doing is making it more difficult to eventually go and find out. Using modern ‘FasTEST’ testing kits you can have your results in as little as 15 minutes and no needles. Just a tiny prick on the finger and that’s it.
With early diagnosis and proper treatment you can live just as long and just as well as anyone else. I’ve received amazing care and support, both from the NHS and the THT, and I’m looking forward to living into my old age with some handsome man.
I urge everyone who reads this, who isn’t HIV+ or hasn’t been tested recently, GO AND GET TESTED THIS WEEK. Maybe you’re looking for an easy to do New Year’s Resolution? This one will take just 15 minutes of your time and could save your life, and save the lives of those you love and/or play with.
There are centres up and down the country, in big cities, little towns, gay centres, NHS centres, charity centres – you could even do it on your lunch break or on the way home from work. Use the THT Clinic Finder to find your nearest clinic and carry through on your new resolution.
Love and best wishes,