Irish Examiner: HIV is not death sentence
Philip Corcoran of Cork’s Sexual Health Centre urges men and women who are sexually active and taking risks to have a HIV test. It save lives and halts infection.
Since its inception in 1987 the Sexual Health Centre has been closely associated with the development of care and support services for people living with HIV. HIV, (which stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus), attacks the cells which would normally protect the body from illness. There is no cure for HIV and once somebody has the virus, they have it for the rest of their life.
In the early days of the Sexual Health Centres’ work with HIV positive people, the virus was seen as a death sentence. Over the last 28 years the life experience and expectations of people living with HIV has changed dramatically. Due to the effectiveness of the treatments, it is now possible for HIV positive people to live full and active lives. However, because of the stigma attached to being HIV positive many people who are aware of having placed themselves at risk are reluctant to go for testing.
Many HIV positive people may be unaware of the fact, and may not have any concern because they feel fine - in the meantime, the virus will be free to attack and weaken the person’s immune system. If left untreated the body will no longer be able to fight off infection and HIV can then lead to AIDS. This is when a person’s immune system is so weakened, that it can no longer fight off infection. For this reason early diagnosis is very important for a person’s long term prognosis. Early diagnosis is also very important in reducing transmission of the virus to sexual partners, as newly infected people are highly infectious.
According to the recent report from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre there were 377 new cases of HIV in Ireland in 2014. This is an increase of 11% compared to 2013. Of the new cases 49% were men who have sex with men, 33% were heterosexual and 7% were injecting drug users.
If a person has engaged in an activity which they feel has put them at risk of acquiring HIV they can access Post Exposure Prophylaxis or PEP from their local A&E department. PEP can reduce the likelihood of contracting HIV but the course needs to be started within 72 hours of the risk activity taking place.
Also, a study in the UK has shown that Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis or PrEP can cut the risk of contracting HIV by 86% if it is given to people when they are healthy. There has been much discussion in other countries in relation to PrEP but very little in Ireland to date.
HIV, however, is preventable. Correct use of condoms greatly reduces the risk of spreading the virus and most other STIs. It is not who you are, it is what you do that will dictate whether or not you acquire HIV or any other STI. Anybody can get HIV if they do not protect themselves.
The virus cannot be transmitted through any of the normal social day to day interactions we have with other people such as hugging, kissing or sharing cups. HIV can only be passed on through the exchange of blood, semen, vaginal fluids or breast milk. Despite this - HIV positive people face stigma & discrimination.
The Sexual Health Centre has been providing a Rapid HIV testing service for a number of years now and when people attend, they will have their results within half an hour. Most people will develop antibodies which can be detected by a test within two to eight weeks.
When people present at the Sexual Health Centre for a test, they are given the opportunity to discuss their fears around the result. Many people report anxieties about how their lives will change and worry about other peoples’ judgements. If a person receives a positive diagnosis, they are not left alone to deal with the result, counselling support is provided at the centre free of charge, for as long as the person needs it.
In the event of a negative result people are advised on how they can reduce their risk of acquiring HIV in the future. Counselling can also be offered to help people change behaviours which may be putting them at risk.
If people are concerned that they have put themselves at risk they should access testing. Early detection and treatment can mean that HIV positive people can live as long as people who are living without HIV. The treatment for HIV also greatly reduces the risk of transmission to other people. An ongoing study is examining the risk of sexual transmission of HIV by people on treatment. Couples where one partner was HIV positive and on treatment were recruited for this study. No HIV positive person with an undetectable viral load, gay or heterosexual, was found to transmit HIV to their partner in the first two years of the study. These early findings highlight the importance of treatment as a means of reducing transmissions.
Our advice to people is very simple, know your status, get tested.