National HIV Testing Week runs from 6 February. Coronavirus impacted National HIV Testing Weeks in 2021 and 2022 and this year the traditional testing options return, alongside the innovations which emerged during lockdowns.
Anyone in England can order a free test. Self-tests are available to do in the comfort of your own home with a result in just minutes. The test works similarly to an at home pregnancy test but using a few drops of blood from a small prick on your finger.
HIV testing and sexual health screening are essential, as my own experience demonstrates. Prior to my HIV diagnosis I aimed to test for HIV twice a year. I tested negative for HIV in April 2009 and then positive in January 2010. The HIV diagnosis came as a shock, but within a week I had an appointment at a specialist HIV clinic and was on the treatment pathway.
My early diagnosis is a key factor in my robust physical health today. HIV treatments have advanced massively and, even if you are diagnosed late, are still highly effective. However, the earlier the diagnosis is made and the treatment started the better. There are some clinics where you can start HIV treatment the same day as your diagnosis and often this is just one tablet a day.
I am not saying that it is always easy to stay on top of HIV testing, sexual health or even health more broadly. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes, procrastinate, or could be struggling with mental health issues. There is no shame in not having tested for a while or perhaps never. As an activist I consider myself conscientious about my sexual health, but I found it challenging to stay across everything in the second half of 2022.
In August I was fortunate to get a vaccine for Monkeypox, comparatively early on. Guidance around Monkeypox vaccinations then changed, I was offered my fourth coronavirus booster, had a flu vaccination, there was the December cold snap and some services closed due to public transport issues. It wasn’t until January that I had my second Monkeypox jab.
Sometimes, despite our best intentions, circumstances from other health commitments, work, children, to the vagaries of living in a post-pandemic world, get in the way of looking after our sexual health. There were still over 250,000, around 20%, fewer people testing for HIV in 2021 than 2019. It would be great if 2023 could be the year that HIV testing not just equals but exceeds pre-pandemic levels.
I like to visit the STI clinic in person. Nurses often have helpful, up-to-date and local advice. Some of my friends told me about how difficult it was to get in person appointments in 2020 and 2021. This has now changed and sexual health services across the country are functioning normally again, although it is not as easy to walk in everywhere without an appointment as in the past.
Charities do important outreach work and you may have come across HIV and other STI testing in bars, clubs, saunas or at Pride events. This is stepped up during National HIV Testing Week. It is confidential and should you test positive for HIV, you will be put in touch with health professionals and other services, such as peer support groups for the newly diagnosed to help you come to terms with the change.
Over the course of 2020, 2021 and 2022, gay and bi men were great at taking up postal at-home testing. This became mainstream and is the reason that despite the 20% overall decline in testing between 2019 and 2021, testing by gay and bi men did recover to pre-pandemic levels. Overall, internet testing increased by 32% between 2020 and 2021 alone, to over 560,000 tests and overtaking testing in traditional settings. Internet testing means that you can test at your own convenience and in complete privacy.
Russell T Davies It’s a Sin, which had many of us captivated in January and February 2021, played a significant part in encouraging people to test. It showed the challenges posed by HIV for gay and bi men in the 1980s and early 1990s. It certainly kept HIV at the forefront of the minds of gay and bi men, as well as raising awareness more generally.
Terrence Higgins Trust also is currently advising on Eastenders’ Zack Hudson HIV storyline. I hope that the Eastenders storyline will do for testing among straight people in 2023 what It’s a Sin did for testing among gay and bi men in 2021. Furthermore, maybe this year when you go for your test, talk about it with your straight friends and family, or even work colleagues if you feel comfortable doing so. Campaigns by charities and the representation of HIV on screen are important, but don’t underestimate the impact you can have personally.
National HIV Testing Week is the ideal time for you to test and also to raise awareness around testing for HIV. Most importantly take responsibility for your own sexual health, but consider if there’s anything you can do to get someone else, LGBTQ+ or straight, testing.
It Starts With Me has testing kits and other resources.