A turning point for HIV stigma?

With landmark findings on HIV transmission, and Prince Harry getting tested live on Facebook, it’s been a remarkable week for tackling HIV stigma – but there are still far too many people who still believe that HIV can be transmitted by kissing, sharing plates or even sitting on toilet seats, says Alex Sparrowhawk, 31, Membership and Involvement Officer at Terrence Higgins Trust.

This month marks twenty years since the announcement of effective antiretroviral treatment, which works by reducing the level of HIV in the blood to ‘undetectable’ levels.

While the majority of people living with HIV, including myself, have had the chance to live physically healthy lives thanks to this breakthrough, many of us have still endured the stigma associated with the virus – stigma from society as a manifestation of fear and ignorance around misconceptions of ‘catching HIV’, but also from deep rooted internalised feelings of shame and guilt around their diagnosis and the fear of transmitting it to anyone else.

This has become a powerful barrier stopping people getting tested and onto effective treatment, as people fear reactions from friends, family, colleagues and their community, should they test positive.

Over the past week, we’ve been presented with two incredible opportunities to change all of this. A landmark study has shown that people on effective HIV treatment cannot transmit the virus. Just two days later, Prince Harry has normalised HIV testing by broadcasting his own HIV test live on Facebook, demystifying the process and showing there is nothing to be feared.

Could the tide be finally turning on the stigma, discrimination and myths that so many people living with HIV face on a daily basis? There is a long way to go – but these are two huge leaps in the right direction.

Across 14 European countries, 1,166 gay and heterosexual serodiscordant couples – a relationship where one partner is HIV positive and the other HIV negative – enrolled in the PARTNER study. And after an incredible 58,000 recorded acts of condomless sex, the study has this week confirmed there were no linked transmissions between the HIV positive and HIV negative partners.

The results of the PARTNER study aren’t just about the numbers – they’re an opportunity to dispel the myths and fears around the transmission of HIV – we can now say with confidence that if you are taking antiretroviral medication as prescribed, and have had an undetectable viral load for six months or more, then you will not transmit HIV to someone else during sex, even if you and your partner aren’t using condoms.

Many individuals with HIV have already been emboldened from earlier, smaller studies to start families, date HIV negative people and enjoy sex with their partners without condoms, but the PARTNER results will provide that confidence and empowerment to even more people with the virus, and are the perfect chance to educate the public – there are still far too many people who still believe that HIV can be transmitted by kissing, sharing plates or even sitting on toilet seats.

I’ve lived with HIV happily in a relationship with a negative partner for over six years, but I would love to see more people find happiness with someone special or have a fulfilling sex life.

People with HIV are now provided with extra reassurance which will improve the mental wellbeing of many people, especially those at vulnerable stages of their diagnosis. To be able to reassure newly diagnosed people that, with treatment, they will not only live well, but also not be able to transmit the virus, is an extremely powerful tool.

More people with HIV will become mums and dads. More will grow trust in starting relationships with people they like, rather than limiting themselves to people they simply share a condition with. And more people can experience an intimate sexual relationship with those they love, without fear of transmitting the virus to the people they care about the most, or simply want to have a good time with.

The final results of the PARTNER study must give us the confidence to announce widely what many of us have believed for a long time. It’s time to stop talking about the ifs, buts, the maybes and might happens, it’s time to empower people with HIV to understand what these results really mean, and it’s time we started shouting it from the rooftops; living with HIV no longer has to mean living as someone who is infectious.

Stigma isn’t something that anyone with HIV should have to experience and anything that we can use to educate the public must be used to its full potential, whether it’s findings from research such as the PARTNER study, or witnessing Prince Harry being tested for HIV live on Facebook.

Over the past few days, the message has been clear; it’s healthy and normal to get tested for HIV, and if you’re diagnosed as HIV positive, you will be able to access treatment that means you won’t transmit the virus to anyone else.

Now it’s up to us as a society to hear that message, to spread it far and wide and make HIV stigma a thing of the past.

If you have any questions about HIV, call Terrence Higgins Trust’s free, confidential helpline THT Direct on 0808 802 1221.



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