Todays guest post comes from a good man doing a great thing. The stigma and misunderstanding surrounding HIV and AIDS is a genuine cause for concern not only abroad in third world countries but also on our very doorstep here in London. Today, Lee talks to us about his personal fight against the sometimes life-threatening misconceptions of the disease.
‘I started working in sexual health little under two years ago and the issues that we face when addressing peoples’ sexual health is still, and will always be, an ongoing battle, because people don’t seem to be able to, or want to talk about it.
My role is as a Health Promotions Specialist, meaning I work with various relevant groups to educate and support them with issues that are more common within their communities. I specifically work around HIV targeting two key groups: the MSM (men who have sex with men) and the BME (black minority and ethnic).
It’s weird to think that HIV can affect two different communities in extremely different ways that have to be approached in individual and tactful ways. From my experience the MSM community seem to be a bit more clued up and aware of HIV, however still not taking the necessary precautions. With the BME community it seems to be a cultural issue that has been integrated with religion through time.
Being a gay male and having friends living with HIV, this was an area in which I was keen to enhance my knowledge (as this was minimal at the time). By working with Terrence Higgins Trust my understanding has grown and experience flourished, gaining an inside and uncut firsthand view into the world of both groups, while trying to tackle barriers to increase HIV testing and reducing the stigma.
Only this week I was faced with somebody who claimed to know everything about contracting the virus including the fact you could ‘catch HIV by holding hands and kissing’ (oh dear) – this is where I come in and have the opportunity to dismiss these old age myths. Let me state; you cannot catch HIV by holding hands or kissing!
Empowerment is being in the position to educate people and give them the time and correct information for them to take forward and use as they wish. As they say you can lead a horse to water.
The BME community needs to be approached in a very sensitive and ‘third party way’. HIV is generally not something they like to talk about but affects this group greatly. The black African community equates to just 1.8% of the U.K population but make up 34% of the U.K diagnoses for HIV. This is not a number that can be dismissed. I work with churches and faith leaders to educate them and to get conversations started. By doing this we can make HIV an everyday topic and encourage testing. The pastors are the hardest people to get the message through to, however once you have got through the gatekeeper the congregation will generally follow.
Last week marked National HIV Testing Week which is funded by Public Health and initiated by Terrence Higgins Trust which is the largest HIV and sexual health charity in Europe. Statistics state there are around 103,000 people in the UK living with HIV and a quarter of these do not know they have it. Not knowing you have HIV means the virus quantities are stronger in certain bodily fluids, as they are not taking treatment which ‘suppresses’ the virus. If somebody is diagnosed they normally take between one to three pills a day, this builds the immune system which is what HIV attacks. The medication also brings the virus down to an undetectable level.
I run an MSM clinic, the way I engage with the local gay community is by using dating apps and ‘hook-up’ sites to send messages to promote my weekly clinic. On one profile (a guy aged 22) said, ‘Looking to meet HIV guys’, I was gobsmacked. Why would a 22 year old guy be looking to meet and have sex with someone that was living with HIV? I couldn’t resist but to message him and ask him why. The answer I received changed my view on where HIV sits within this community. He wrote the following ‘if a guy knows he has HIV and is on treatment and at an undetectable level this means his has less than a 2% chance of passing it on – this is if we were not using contraception, which is not what I’m planning to do. However if I meet someone who just says they haven’t got HIV (because they have never been tested to know) but in fact has it would be more risky… That was food for thought! And yes he did have a valid point and level of accuracy.
HIV is now a fully treatable condition and easier to treat than many medical conditions on one condition though – providing you know you have it. We are still seeing hundreds of people die in the UK each year who are diagnosed with a year of their death so getting regularly tested is such an important thing to do.
Testing people for HIV and giving them their ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ result is the ultimate feeling of empowerment. If they have it we can get them on treatment to live fulfilling lives and if they don’t, it’s an opportunity for new start and give them the chance to protect themselves from then on….
I’ve had tears of joy and tears sadness… All for the best and that’s what I call the feeling of empowerment.’
(Photos – Eli Woodbine – Wales 2o15 & Lee,London 2015)