|Words by Ian Howley | @IanHowley
Photo: © Shutterstock.com
I’ve been working in sexual health since 2010 and I’ve seen it all.
I’ve seen how the lack of basic sex education can affect people. I’ve seen how low poor self-esteem can impact someone’s judgement to look after their sexual health. But of all I’ve seen, it’s fear that is having the biggest impact on HIV prevention by creating stigma associated with HIV.
Fear is the worst emotion of them all. Fear makes us afraid of things we shouldn’t find scary. When people are afraid they tend to back off, put up walls, criticise or lash out. Some won’t even believe the facts that are put in front of them. Fear in our community is stopping people from opening up and preventing communication with gay men living with HIV. Fear is leading to a battle within our community on apps and in social settings.
People with HIV are called ‘dirty’, ‘sluts’, ‘bad people’ because luck went against them and they caught the virus. Fear creates a space for targeted hate. Many times HIV-negative people hit out at people living with HIV because they are scared of the virus. But this can have severe health problems for people living with HIV. It’s been found that men living with HIV are likely to have mental health issues because of their status, with some dying by suicide. Four in ten suicides occurred in the first year after diagnosis. During this time, men’s suicide rate was five times that of the general population. This is totally unacceptable.
Over the last several years, GMFA and other sexual health organisations have worked really hard to make sure we reached out to people and help break down the fear associated with the virus. But unfortunately, fear also sells. And in a world where clicks are more important than improving society we are seeing how years of hard work can be destroyed with just one headline. And it’s so frustrating. I know what some of you are already thinking: “Isn’t fear a good thing sometimes, as it keeps us in check?” or thinking that stigma or having a fear of HIV-positive people will stop people from becoming positive.
Well I’m here today to tell you that you are wrong. Recently, Public Health England released statistics that show that about 13% of people who are living with HIV don’t know they have the virus. Those 13% think they are HIV-negative. They are also accounting for around 80% of new HIV infections. So it’s mainly people who don’t know they have HIV, who will tell you they are HIV-negative, who are spreading the virus. If you’re being treated successfully, you cannot pass on HIV.
Here’s something you need to know. People living with HIV and on successful treatment cannot pass on the virus. When someone is diagnosed as HIV-positive, their viral load (that’s the amount of HIV in their system) tends to be very high. Once they are put on HIV medication, the medication works to decrease the amount of HIV in their body and very soon their viral load will become so low that they will become HIV-undetectable, meaning there is so little HIV in their system they cannot pass on the virus. In the last year or so you may have seen this message being pushed quite a bit by sexual health organisations. It’s been proven by science.
The PARTNER study recorded sexual acts between mixed HIV status people and found that no-one passed on the virus. But yet, because of the fear people have we still have people not believing science. I’ve heard many times: “It’s not worth the risk”. But we must continue moving forward with this message. Fear can hold us back but education and awareness will move us forward. We must continue to work to dispel the ignorance that ‘s surrounding HIV, increase people’s knowledge of testing, treatment as prevention, PrEP and condoms, while breaking down the social barriers that are caused by fear and HIV stigma. Only by increasing our knowledge of HIV and how it’s transmitted, can we really make an effort to stop HIV stigma in our community.
Someone’s unfounded fear might just be stopping them from being with someone truly amazing.
This article was originally published in the i Newspaper.