Even hearing the word ‘HIV’ can be enough to terrify some people, and it’s completely understandable why. For the last half of a century or so, AIDS has cut short the life of millions, worldwide, including some pretty high profile people as well. Freddie Mercury is probably one of the most famous of these people.
HIV is not AIDS. It can go on to develop into full blown AIDS, but equally it may not and can live as a dormant virus in your body. So, why did people historically not seek medical advice if they thought they had HIV been exposed to it? Because that most definitely pushed up the death rates.
- 1.Lack of awareness, i.e. not recognising the symptoms.
- 2.Fear. Fear of being told that yes, they did have the virus.
- 3.Shame (read the explanation below).
- 4.Thinking that there’s no point because it can’t be treated so they may as well just accept it.
Unfortunately, as we know now, early diagnosis increases your chances of survival hugely. Now, let’s examine the ‘shame’ aspect that many people felt, or continue to feel and means that they don’t seek medical advice. Why is that?
- Because AIDS was associated with homosexual men for a long time. And when you consider how long homosexuality was a criminal offence in Britain, going to voluntarily admit that you’ve been exposed or think that you have it, is a massive deterrent. The stigma surrounding this illness was very, very large indeed and would have put off thousands of people from seeing their doctor, even well into the 1960s and 70s. They simply felt that the shame was too much.
- AIDS was also associated with promiscuity and people didn’t want to be thought of promiscuous, it was as simple as that.
The face of AIDS and HIV is a massively changed landscape these days – thank goodness! The problem is that lots of older people still feel that stigma and it hasn’t yet become as routine illness to be treated as any other would be. But advances in medicine and creating awareness of these advances has meant that things are looking very different now, meaning that the rate of newly diagnosed cases has fallen and continues to fall, in fact, these are the figures that we have now:
“4,139 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in the UK in 2019. New HIV diagnoses have continued to decline over the past decade with a substantial decrease over the past two years; decreasing by 10% between 2018 and 2019, and by 34% since we saw a peak number in 2014….”
And why are these rates dropping? Because there’s more awareness, there’s been an increase in people being tested, there’s much more clinical research out there, there have been advances in medicine and early diagnoses are climbing so the treatment offered is far more effective.
HIV infection takes this path:
- 1.Short illness, much like flu (fever, sore throat, joint pain and swollen glands). But these symptoms do NOT mean that you have HIV, there are lots of other viruses that cause these as well.
- 2.The next symptoms may not appear for a long time, up to ten years. But in the meantime the virus is still active and causing progressive damage to the immune system. When this becomes seriously damaged, you might find night sweats, skin problems, weight loss, chronic diarrhoea and other life-threatening illnesses.
If you were asking about the possibility of an HIV vaccine being available on the market any time soon just a couple of months ago, you wouldn’t have received much of an answer because there’s currently no licensed vaccine on the market. BUT, excitingly, as of July 5th 2021, Oxford University has started vaccinations of an HIV vaccine candidate as Part 1 of a clinical trial in the UK. This programme will take 13, healthy, HIV-negative adults aged between 18 and 65 and they will receive the first dose of the vaccine and then a further booster dose at 4 weeks. There’s still no cure, but there are very effective treatments out there meaning that patients can live a long life.
If you think that you’ve been at risk of HIV exposure, PEP (a preventative medicine) can stop you from becoming infected. But it’s vital to seek medical treatment ASAP because this can only be given up to 72 hours after the suspected exposure. It’s only really recommended in cases where there’s a likely infection, e.g. having a partner who you know is HIV positive. You can get it from sexual health clinics, or even the A&E department of a hospital.
A positive test means that you would regular blood tests to monitor its progress. These blood tests would assess the:
- -HIV viral load (how much of the virus is in the bloodstream).
- -CD4 lymphocyte cell count (seeing how much damage there is to the immune system).
If you have any of the risk factors or symptoms after sexual intercourse with someone you know to be positive, or someone who you suspect might be positive, then you MUST seek medical quickly, ideally within 72 hours so PEP treatment can be given if appropriate. Even if it isn’t, being aware of the virus from the word go really boosts your chances of living a largely unaffected life.
And don’t forget to always use condoms in the future – these are the only contraceptive method which protects against both pregnancy and STIs.