World AIDS Day


>I have a confession to make.

I don’t always practise safe sex. In fact bareback sex does feel so much better than using a condom….

at the time.

However, to be frank it is one of the reasons that so many people, especially gay men, are still getting infected day by day.People often ask, how can people put themselves in risk of affection, often that is one of the major reasons, it feels good….at the time.

There is of course then the wait of three months to get outside the window period, the anxious walk to a clinic to get tested, and the wait for the blood results and then the wait for the next time, just to be sure. But at the time it feels good, but that doesn’t make it right to do so and here is a personal realisation as to why.

See the thing is that even though I campaign to end the blood ban, I really want it to be lifted in a way that I personally will find it very hard to give blood, not because of my sexual orientation but because of my how I go about it. I have had sex with men who are living with HIV (three of them in total, that I am aware of, though only two told me at the time).

The one of those who didn’t tell me, contacted me rather embarrassed 8 months after we last had sex. His first comment was “I have something to tell you”. Before he revealed that he’d just been diagnosed with HIV and probably was living with it at the time we were together. Thankfully for me he had failed to answer my questioning in a positive way when he asked for us to forget about the condoms. He also changed his answers when he’d asked again some weeks later.

I’m big enough, ugly enough and informed enough to make my own decisions about who I sleep with, providing I’m aware of the facts. With the two who were honest there are two things that I cannot provide:

  1. I cannot offer him anal sex without a condom being involved
  2. I cannot be 100% sure that any sex we have is safe (there is no guarantee of that)

I’m aware of my current HIV (and other STIs) status, just two weeks ago my bloods came back negative, as did my swabs. But that is as much through luck as good personal responsibility.

Here’s the thing, if I were to fall in love with someone living with HIV, I would want to love them emotional, intellectually, spiritually and sexually. Of course anyone in such a circumstance would also be facing the same two criteria above. I trust on point one they would love me enough to respect that is the case, I hope for point two that they realise I love them enough to want to be part of them, even with that one small chance of doubt every time.

There has of course been a lot of jumping up and down in the gay press about Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) benefits from the use of Truvada before infection. However, this is a costly way to counter the issue and

“For now, and for the foreseeable future, condoms remain the most effective, easily available and cheapest way of preventing HIV transmission. As this trial suggests, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis is going to be an addition to condom use rather than a replacement of it.”

So therefore as you’ve seen today through my blogging the message this World AIDS Day the message of Act Aware really is one that I am taking on board. That’s why I’m protecting myself and others from HIV infection.

It is why I have taken this day away from parking my blog to make these three posts going from the overall picture, through my local situation and friend, to this very personal post. Hopefully through something I have said today, someone, somewhere, maybe even you, will take a number of steps to Act Aware in your own life.

  1. Get tested (and keep getting tested) it may seem like a trauma to do it, but the knowledge of your status at regular intervals is far better than finding out late on you have an issue.
  2. Practise safer sex always use a condom in casual relationships
  3. Never rely on self disclosure from someone else. As I mentioned above 1 in 4 people living with HIV cannot disclose to you that they are, because they themselves do not know. Respect your own body and health, you are only in control of that, not anyone else’s.

If you do live in Northern Ireland and are concerned about HIV contact the confidential helpline number 0800 137 437.

Or make a visit to the Genito Urinary Medicine (GUM) clinics at the following locations:

The Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast 
The Causeway Hospital, Coleraine 
Altnagelvin Hospital, Londonderry 
Daisy Hill Hospital, Newry

Condoms are readily available through chemists, public toilets or even in health packs at most gay venues. So even if you pull on a night out there is no excuse to not be prepared.

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>Yeah it will come as shock to some people in Northern Ireland, but yes there are people living with HIV here in Northern Ireland.

You can’t tell who they are by looking at them.

You are not at risk from every day contact with them.

The HIV Support Centre in Belfast says that every week there are two people newly diagnosed with HIV. That is two more people who will be living with HIV in their bodies, two more sets of family and friends that will be living with someone they know very well having HIV.

Of course it is up to the individual in question as to whether s/he lets their family or friends know their status. There is still a stigma attached to HIV, which is almost as much of the ignorance from the 80s instead of what is known now about the disease. In fact it is possible to be in a full relationship with someone living with HIV and practice safer sex and to remain negative yourself*.

That stigma is something that is hard to overcome. It only will be broken down if more people living with HIV are courageous enough to let others know. Showing others that they can live a perfectly normal live.

My friend Michael is a trustee of The HIV Support Centre and he is adamant that the stigma of HIV is best lifted when people are aware that people living with HIV are all around them. Until recently this was even an issue with The HIV Support Centre itself, referring to itself merely as ‘The Centre’; the centre of what, one might ask. I recently witnessed him helping lift that stigma one person at a time.

He was talking to a friend he had known for some time, the conversation got round to HIV and his work as a trustee. Standing there listening I had an inkling where that conversation was going, especially once the friend seemed shocked that there people living with HIV in Northern Ireland, the friend was not someone you’d expect to be ignorant of such facts. Michael, eventually asked the question, “Do you know anyone living with HIV?”. The friend replied “No”. A hand was proffered with the words, “Hello, I’m Michael, I’m living with HIV.” It was a brave step even to a friend of some standing, and I’m glad to report he shook that hand and carried on asking more questions, over to the side I was fighting back the tear ducts**.

There is also the stigma of attending a GUM clinic. Some people think that everyone in there is carrying some STI if not HIV. But not every car that you see in a garage needs work doing, some are just being serviced and getting looked over ahead of an MOT, getting tested regularly is just like that. Far better to know what your status is, negative or otherwise at regular intervals that to find out too late that there is something wrong. Late diagnoses means that sometimes the medications may not be effective for the treatment of HIV.

Scarily 1 in 4 people living with HIV are as yet undiagnosed. Scarily of that set 39% are diagnosed so late that they need to start HIV treatment immediately, and 30% were diagnosed so late that there was a real risk of developing a potentially fatal illness. When there are apparently to 1 in 20 of the UK wide gay male population that are living with HIV that can lead to nightmares. Therefore the rule of thumb is treat every encounter the same, be safe and respect your own body. If someone refuses you because you want safer sex, don’t give in to peer pressure.

The message this year is ACT AWARE.

Are you aware of your HIV status?

If you’re not but are sleeping around whether with people of the same sex or the opposite, may I advise you to go and get tested now and regularly and be aware.

If you don’t believe how important that can be I’ll advise to wait until my next blog post.

* Of course there is no such thing as 100% safe sex, but if you love someone you decide for yourself what you want to do providing you are in full knowledge of the facts.

** Yeah I tend to well up quite a lot.

>

I know that I parked this blog a couple of weeks ago, but there is something today that is too big, that is beyond politics that I felt compelled to draw your attention to. Today is World AIDS Day. Here are some of the UK statistics from their website.

More people than ever are living with HIV in the UK and each year new infections occur.

People living with HIV in the UK

  • The number of people living with HIV in the UK has trebled in the last 10 years
  • More than 90,000 people are living with HIV in the UK
  • Over a quarter of people with HIV in the UK are undiagnosed
  • About two thirds of people living with HIV are men and a third are women
  • Over half of all people living with HIV are aged between 30 and 44, but there are significant numbers both of young people and older people now living with HIV
  • One in 20 gay men in the UK is living with HIV

New HIV cases in 2008

  • 7,298 new diagnoses
  • The two groups most affected remain gay and bisexual men and black African heterosexuals.  Three-quarters of people diagnosed were among these two groups.
  • 2,760 new diagnoses among men who have sex with men
  • 2,790 new diagnoses among people from black and minority ethnic communities

This year they are running a campaign to be aware. Be aware of your HIV status. The harrowing fact that I highlighted above is that a quarter of people living with HIV are not aware that they are infected.

I have to admit there have been times that I have gone for my regular checks that I have been worried that I might have been at real risk of being infected. Indeed one of my recent tests I was anxious. I had experienced the primary HIV infection (or sero-conversion illness) symptoms, at about the right time scale when I could have been exposed. However, my tests did come back negative.

Knowing your status is important whether you are gay or straight especially if you are engaging in an active sex life with multiple partners, or if you are in an open relationship. Get into the habit of going regularly (every six months) to your local genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic or with your local GP. The local GUM clinic for me now is up at the Royal Victoria Hospital, their staff there carried out my last test.

The message today is:

Be Aware
Be as Safe as you can be
Be Responsible for you own health

Footnote

The term living with HIV often only refers to those who actually have HIV. But a friend of mine recently said that those of use who know a family member, friend or partner who has HIV are also in a sense living with HIV. We deal with some of the effects it has on the person that we love. If we carry on living with their HIV we do not love them any less, we may show our love for them even more through the practical things we do for them and the support we give them to help them carry on as normal.

In that sense I am someone who is living with another friend’s HIV and I want them to know that I am thinking of them as ever today.