Tom Knight reflects on World AIDS Day

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Another year has gone by, and another World AIDS Day is here. I think it’s important to celebrate how far we’ve come, but also remind ourselves how far we still need to go.

Over the years, a lot has changed in the fight against HIV and AIDS. HIV is no longer a death sentence, and today if a person begins with antiretroviral medication early, they’re expected to have a normal life span.

But with medication costs still very high, especially to many of the global population, it’s important to remember that some countries don’t have the resources or support that we’re lucky enough to have in the UK.

Saying that, one of the biggest barriers we’re facing is people not getting tested. An estimated 13,500 people in the UK are living with HIV and don’t know it. Recently, THT have said a shocking 1 in 7 gay men are positive and don’t know it.

  • UK statistics show that 17 gay men get diagnosed each day in the UK, with 5 of them alone being in London. So the chances are you know multiple people that are positive whether they know it or not.
  • More than 35 million people have died of HIV\AIDS related illnesses
  • With over 70 million people diagnosed with HIV globally, and 47% of them women, HIV being referenced ‘as the gay disease’ couldn’t be further from the truth – HIV doesn’t discriminate.
  • In GMFA’s 2015 sex survey, 44% of guys said they wouldn’t sleep with someone with the virus. It is understandable to be scared of HIV, but the truth is hiding from it won’t help the situation either. Whether you are HIV positive or not, it is all of our battle to fight.
  • 95% of people living with HIV in the UK who are on treatment are now undetectable – when the level of HIV in your blood drops below a certain point. Meaning it is highly unlikely they would pass on the virus.

We now have Pre-exposure prophylaxis aka PrEP. It’s a course of HIV drugs taken before sex to dramatically reduce the risk of getting HIV. The idea is that it could, one day, be widely available to those who are at high risk of coming into contact with the virus. Here in the UK it’s not available on the NHS just yet, but it is available through a private service where a prescription may be purchased following an assessment.

All major health authorities and sexual health charities are calling for this to become freely available on the NHS and it would be a great tool for prevention alongside condoms, education and other methods.

Home testing kits are easily available, meaning people can get tested in the privacy of their homes in their own time. While these tests have been heavily debated, they are a good way of taking that first step to getting diagnosed and getting on treatment. It can be an incredibly scary experience going to get a HIV test. Being able to do it at home definitely helps a lot of people get on the right track and diagnosed.

But while there have been many medical breakthroughs, and some incredible progress in HIV treatment and prevention, one of the biggest issues we’re facing is the stigma that comes with it.

In recent years, we seem to have taken a step back in the way some people get treated when they are open about their status. There are many archaic attitudes out there about HIV, some that resemble what it was like in the 80s. People being shamed because of their status, losing friendships and being publicly ‘outed’ as HIV positive.

Shaun Griffin, executive director of External Affairs at Terrence Higgins Trust said yesterday: “Stigma is a dangerous construct and we’ve seen that it has a damaging effect on individuals and on public health. It can deter people from accessing testing or treatment, and can isolate a person living with HIV causing anxiety or depression.”

These attitudes often lead to many people being pushed into the viral closet, not feeling they can be honest about their status. Often hiding it from loved ones, partners and sexual encounters.

So the next time someone tells you they’re HIV positive. I ask you, please be careful and considerate with your reply.

Imagine you’re sitting there slating someone for being HIV positive and without knowing it, the guy next to you is positive himself. That can set someone back so much with coming to terms with their status.

When it comes to dating or using hook up apps/sites, whether or not your decision stems from you not wanting to sexually interact with someone who is positive, we all need to be mindful with our responses. You may forget that chat quite quickly, but think about the other person. That might be the first time they’ve decided to be up front and honest, and they might remember that rejection for years to come. Each and every time someone gets nastily rejected because of their status, the danger is that becomes another brick in a wall trapping them in the viral closet.

If you’re HIV positive, I know it’s hard to open up about your status, and I’m not saying shouting from the rooftops to the world that being positive is for everyone. But talk to your friends and family. The more people that become aware they know someone with HIV, the more we move forward.

So if you do anything this World AIDS Day, whether it be attending a local fund raiser or buying a ribbon, make sure you go out and learn something new about the global situation.

The knowledge is out there, and there are many anti-stigma campaigns and charities around. It’s time we all educated ourselves, not only to protect our health, but our community’s health.

Find out more about testing at freetesting.hiv and find out more about World AIDS Day at worldaidsday.org

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