Why it’s smart to know your HIV status
Andrew Gámez-Heath didn’t hesitate to get tested for HIV. Little did he know that an unexpected outcome would lead him down the path to patient advocacy.
“I had just started a new relationship and thought I would go for a full sexual health screening as it was the right thing to do,” he tells This Is MedTech. It was 2014 and Andrew had had a test for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) two months earlier, which had come back non-reactive or negative. “I wasn’t worried in the slightest so when my test came back reactive, I went into a panic. It almost felt like the world had stopped and I began to cry,” he says.
“I was one of those people that was still very much ignorant, and I asked the nurse how long I had left. I thought it was a death sentence and had no idea just how far we had come with the fight against HIV,” explains Andrew. He’s not alone. Despite 37 million people around the world having the virus – which is passed on from one person to another via certain body fluids (only semen, vaginal fluid, breast milk and blood) and attacks the body’s immune system – there are misconceptions about what it means.
“I think two things really drove me to become a patient advocate,” says Andrew, who works with a local charity called Positive Health. “Firstly, it just seems so wrong that the general public don’t seem to know the correct facts about HIV. I wanted to get the message out there so people would not be afraid of getting a test and if the test did come back positive then that’s a really good thing to know.”
This resonates with the United Nations’ 2018 theme for World AIDS Day on 1st December which is ‘Know Your Status’. It’s estimated that 9.4 million people don’t know that they’re living with HIV. With early diagnosis and treatment, people with HIV can live normal lives without developing Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which occurs when the immune system has become too weak to fight off diseases that it would normally be able to cope with.
“We’re living in a time where medical technology allows us to test for HIV in a single finger prick and have results within a minute. People used to have to wait months for their results,” notes Andrew. “It’s true we don’t have a cure, but we have amazing treatment. I feel lucky to have been diagnosed in an era where we have incredibly effective medication. I suffer from no side effects whatsoever.”
Ending the stigma
This leads to the second driver of Andrew’s decision to start speaking out. “I run sexual health workshops in schools and colleges across Lincolnshire and there I was, explaining how easy it is to test for HIV these days and how great the treatment is. In the workshops we try and reduce stigma and discrimination and yet here I was HIV positive and keeping it a secret to all the classes I was educating,” he admits. “So, on the third-year anniversary of my diagnosis, I decided to be more public. I now tell the students at the end of the workshop that I am HIV positive, so they can see that it affects everyday people and you can live a normal life.”
The stigma around HIV is another major issue to be tackled. In fact, the UK National AIDS Trust has its own theme for World AIDS Day 2018, which is ‘Rock the Ribbon’ – the red ribbon being the universal symbol of awareness and support for people living with HIV. “I definitely think there should be more awareness year-round regarding HIV,” comments Andrew, pointing out that people are still relying on outdated information from the huge media campaigns of the 80s and 90s.
“People just stopped talking about HIV and now we need a media campaign as big to say: ‘Look how far we have come!’ One of the most important facts out there is that is if someone living with HIV is on effective treatment and has an undetectable viral load, then there is ZERO risk of passing it on. It’s also incredible that the blood tests I have every six months back up the scientific evidence that I cannot pass on HIV to my partner. That is huge for education and combating stigma.”
World AIDS Day comes on the heels of National HIV Testing Week in the UK as well as European Testing Week, which aims to make testing more accessible and communicate the benefits of earlier testing for hepatitis and HIV.