What is HIV and how do you get it?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus and it weakens your immune system by destroying healthy cells that fight infection and disease. In cases where HIV remains untreated, patients can develop AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) which can lead more easily to serious complications.
HIV is most commonly spread through unprotected vaginal or anal sex. It can also be passed on by sharing infected needles and other injecting equipment, and from an HIV-positive mother to her child during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. Whilst anyone can get HIV, the majority of infections to date in the UK relate to gay men, bisexual men and other men who have sex with men. There are certain minority ethnic communities who also face higher risk of HIV, mainly in Black African communities with links to countries where there has been a wider spread of the infection also in the heterosexual community.
People living with HIV are generally referred to as either “people living with HIV” or as being “HIV Positive”.
If you live in Southampton, Hampshire or Portsmouth or you can order a free postal HIV self sample kit or a free STI self sample kit. The kit will be posted to you and once completed you post it back in prepaid envelope and wait for your results.
All sexual health clinics also provide free HIV testing. You can also request a free HIV test at your GP (family doctor). If you are pregnant you will also be offered a test as part of your ante-natal care. In November, leading up to World Aids Day (1 December each year) there is a national campaign(National HIV Testing Week), where sexual health services also extend outreach testing to a number of other places in the community.
An HIV test is a small blood test, which looks for HIV antibodies in your blood. The antibodies are a sign of your body’s response to the virus and not the virus itself. If you have a positive test result you will be invited to have to have a more detailed test to confirm this diagnosis. That will look at viral load (how much virus you have got in your body) and CD4 count (how many fighting cells you have got.)
If you have been exposed to HIV infection you can access PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis). This is a combination of drugs, which can help you to prevent HIV from getting a foothold in your immune system following a risky exposure. PEP should be started as soon possible after unsafe sex and definitely within 72 hours (3 days). It does have side effects, and isn't guaranteed to work and involves taking anti-HIV drugs for 4 weeks, but it could stop you from becoming HIV Positive.
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Many people worry that if they have a HIV test it will affect their chances of getting travel or health insurance. This is not the case. Insurance companies can only ask about positive test results so if you have had a HIV test which came back negative insurers cannot be given this information. For example, all pregnant women passing through Maternity Services in England are tested as standard for HIV.
If you are unsure about why you should take a HIV test or would like to talk to someone confidentially you can speak to staff from the sexual health promotion service.
If you test positive for HIV you should also encourage any sexual partners you have to get tested too. Staff at the sexual health clinic will be able to help contact your partners and invite them to attend a clinic.
Finding out that you have got a positive HIV diagnosis can be a very stressful and difficult time. You may have many unanswered questions in your head and you may not have understood some of the things that were said to you by the health advisor or doctor when they told you about your diagnosis. Some of the language used around HIV is quite medical and takes time to get used to.
However, modern anti retro viral treatments for HIV are effective in controlling HIV in cells that are actively reproducing, and help keep the levels of the virus in someone living with HIV so low that their immune system functions well, and their ability to infect others is severely reduced.
Widespread fear and ignorance of HIV, AIDS and advances in treatment led to significant levels of stigma in relation to the virus that still persists to this day. Those living with HIV can still sometimes face unfair discrimination and treatment in relation to their employment, health, housing and personal relationships, and this can harm their mental health as well as their physical and economic wellbeing.
The stigma that still exists in many people in relation to HIV is a particular tragedy as it creates the perfect conditions for the ongoing spread of the condition within the community, and a reluctance among many of those at more risk to get tested regularly, and/or to share information about their HIV status with others in their community, their family, their employment and/or their health care (such as their GP). Early detection of HIV makes a big difference to the effectiveness of treatment, so regular testing among those at higher risk is important. Correctly following the medical regime for the treatment of HIV is also important in keeping those living with it healthy.
Your medical care for HIV if you live in Southampton will come from Solent NHS Trust, who are commissioned by NHS England to provide this service across Hampshire.
Positive Action offers support services for anyone living with HIV in Hampshire and the Surrey borders. Positive Action offers a range of support services including information and advice, massage, complimentary therapies, counselling, one to one support with a range of specialists, group sessions and drop in services. Tel: 01252 345019.
The Terrance Higgins Trust web site provides an excellent range of information for people living with HIV from information on being newly diagnosed, managing relationships and staying healthy.
No Limits Help provide a wide range of advice and support services to children and young people under the age of 25, including in relation to sexual health. They can be contacted on 023 8022 4224.
Always use condoms with sexual partners to reduce risk of infection. Get tested when you have a new sexual partner or have a test every year. If you have a partner who is living with HIV, you can also help to reduce your risk by helping them to follow their anti retro-viral (ARV) treatment properly, as this will help keep them and you well.
If you are living with HIV you should also be using condoms during sex to protect your partner, and be working with your healthcare provider to ensure you are following your treatment, and testing your viral load levels regularly.
If you live in Hampshire, Portsmouth or Southampton you can order free condoms online.