© Dave Bird

Health

Everything you need to know about Aids and HIV

Despite huge advances in accurate diagnosis, available treatment and improved prognosis, HIV – the virus that causes Aids – remains under-diagnosed and often poorly understood by the people most at risk. There has, historically, been much speculation, inaccuracy and stigma attached to HIV and Aids. Allow GQ to explain more...

Since former rugby international Gareth Thomas disclosed his HIV status to the world – followed by Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness – there has been an influx of articles, features and interviews that have unpicked the realities of living with HIV in 2019. Which is great considering the fact that HIV and sexual healthcare are still very much taboo topics.

According to recent stats from Public Health England, there were 3,276 new HIV diagnoses in men in 2018, with the majority among gay and bisexual men. This shows that HIV is still very much something that we need to talk about, from how to prevent it to the specifics about testing and treatment.

You can still live a normal life after being diagnosed

"I have picked up figure skating. I’ve done nothing but get cuter and be able to work harder and longer hours – I feel like I am thriving." This was Jonathan Van Ness' response on The Today Show after speaking about HIV medication and what his life has been like since disclosing his HIV status to the world.

HIV treatment has made huge developments since the early stages of the Aids epidemic. This means that people living with HIV and accessing treatment can now live just as long as anybody else.

"After I was diagnosed with HIV, I made a conscious decision to eat healthier and exercise more. I stopped smoking, started yoga and picked up running," says Andrew, who was diagnosed in 2015.

"I eventually ran a half marathon to show people that, despite living with HIV, I was living healthily. I was determined to break the stigma around the diagnosis and now I’m fitter than I’ve ever been."

Treatment means you can’t pass it on

"I want to empower so many people who are in the exact same position as me to feel free as well, and to do that I have to educate myself and others," Gareth Thomas told the Guardian after he disclosed his status.

One of the ways we can all educate others about HIV is making sure everyone knows that people living with HIV, who are on effective HIV treatment, can’t pass the virus on to others. This is the key message of the Terrence Higgins Trust’s Can’t Pass It On campaign. Many people still question this messaging, but it’s really simple.

When taken correctly, HIV treatment reduces the amount of virus in someone’s blood. When the virus is reduced to extremely low levels to the point where a laboratory test can’t pick it up, the virus cannot be passed on. This low level of virus in the blood is what is called an “undetectable viral load”.

Once you have an undetectable viral load you cannot pass on HIV to anyone, even if you don’t use condoms. In the UK, a huge 97 per cent of those diagnosed and on treatment are virally suppressed, which means levels of virus in the blood are so low that they can’t pass on HIV.

You can’t pass it on through kissing, touching or sharing utensils

The lack of education around HIV transmissions can lead to people living with HIV facing stigma and discrimination from their peers.

According to a YouGov survey commissioned by Terrence Higgins Trust, almost half (48 per cent) of Brits would feel uncomfortable kissing someone living with HIV. HIV can only be passed on through blood, semen, vaginal fluid, anal mucus and breast milk, and then only if the person with HIV has a detectable viral load.

It’s not passed on by spitting, kissing, sneezing or coughing. Once outside the body, HIV usually can’t survive for very long. Coming into contact with blood or semen that has been outside the body doesn’t generally pose a risk for HIV transmission.

It’s important to get tested

Although there are communities that are harder hit by HIV in the UK than others, it’s important to remember that HIV can affect anyone. This is why we all have a duty to make sure that we’re practising good sexual health. One of the ways we can all do so is by getting tested regularly, which is one of the main aims of National HIV Testing Week. This year, National HIV Testing week runs from Saturday 16 November; throughout the week Terrence Higgins Trust raises awareness about the importance of knowing your status.

It is recommended that everyone gets tested for both HIV and STIs at least once a year, and there are now more ways than ever to get tested. You can visit your local GP, head to a walk-in clinic, order a postal-test kit or even purchase a self-test kit from Superdrug. So there is really no excuse to not get yourself tested.

According to recent Public Health England stats, 41 per cent of men were diagnosed late. Being diagnosed late is a problem, because if you have HIV for a long time without knowing, it can damage your health. So the sooner you get tested and get on treatment the better.

If you’re worried about your sexual health or have any questions about HIV, contact THT Direct Helpline on 0808 802 1221 for support, advice and information or visit tht.org.uk

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