Our generation is not used to hearing about HIV; the 1980s international AIDS crisis feels like a distant part of history. The virus is still around today although much has changed about its treatment since the ‘80s. According to the National AIDS Trust, as of 2018, almost equal numbers of HIV patients acquired the virus through heterosexual sex as male homosexual sex, busting the myth that HIV only effects gay men. Aside from road accidents, AIDS, the debilitating set of symptoms that occur when HIV goes untreated, is still the biggest killer of young people globally. While this is mainly due to a lack of awareness, education, and access to treatment in more economically deprived areas, it doesn’t mean that the UK is unaffected.
Unfortunately, although overall diagnoses have fallen for a third consecutive year, Public Health England’s most recent data suggests that 43 percent were late, with damage to the immune system already begun, creating a potential ten-fold increased risk of short-term mortality. This information indicates the stigma around HIV testing is still very much in-tact despite the medical leaps and bounds made in recent years.
Last week was National HIV Testing Week in the UK, a campaign held by the Terrence Higgins Trust and HIV Prevention England that encourages everyone to ‘Give HIV the finger’ by taking a quick, painless finger-prick test. The campaign has been promoted by many famous faces, including Gareth Thomas, the Welsh rugby player and first UK sportsman to go public about living with HIV. In discussion with The Duke of Sussex he said, “We do so much around our health – going to the dentist, going to the doctor. But when it comes to sexual health testing there’s the stigma and fear around it […] We need to re-educate people to know that where we are now with HIV it is not a death sentence, it’s not and I am living proof.” This Morning’s Dr Ranj also set an example by taking a HIV test live on TV, telling the audience, “You’ll be in a better situation knowing your status than not knowing. With effective treatment, people living with HIV can not only live long healthy lives but they can’t pass it on to others.”
So how can you get tested?
There are three options. The first is to book an appointment with your GP for a finger-prick or saliva test. Your sample will be sent off to a laboratory and you will receive results within a few days. If you are diagnosed, your GP may prescribe you emergency medication which can prevent infection if taken within 72 hours of coming into contact with the virus. The second option is to visit a sexual health clinic like Edinburgh’s Chalmers Centre. This is ideal if you are sexually active as you can receive a comprehensive STI examination, including checks for chlamydia and gonorrhoea as well as HIV. Both of these options are free on the NHS. Finally, if you can’t spare the time, at home testing and sampling kits are available to buy. These involve either collecting a blood or salvia sample yourself and testing it at home or sending it off to a lab to receive your results via text. However, the NHS warns to ensure your at-home kit has a CE quality assurance mark and is licensed for UK sale as some kits purchased from abroad can be low quality and inaccurate.
Even when National HIV Testing Week is over, it is essential to destigmatise sexual health to ensure everyone gets access to appropriate treatment in time to prevent health issues, early mortality and infection of others. 93 percent of patients acquire HIV through sexual transmission, indicating that everyone who is sexually active should be vigilant. The best way to prevent the spread of HIV and other STIs is to practice safe sex – always use a condom.
Image: Lefteris Koulonis via Flickr