HIV/AIDS is a story with a beginning and middle; but what of its end?
The Beginning – AIDS was first recognized in 1981 and its cause—the HIV virus—was identified in the early part of the decade. Deadly; transmitted by unprotected sex and sharing needles; affecting gay men and injecting drug users most: the beginning of the story was frightening and characterized by intense stigma, fear and loss. Condoms were the only hope to stem the spread of the virus.

The Middle – Throughout the late eighties and nineties a number of drugs were developed to fight HIV/AIDS, and by the mid to late nineties the triple combination method of treating the infected was developed. The middle of the story is characterised by ever improving life expectancies and health outcomes (particularly for those who test positive early), reduced side effects, and amongst the gay male population at home, a worrying reduction in condom use. The ‘Bare Back’ brand had emerged!

Whilst HIV treatments were increasingly providing a comprehensive solution for the HIV positive individual, there was a growing realisation, backed by evidence, that the same medications along with comprehensive testing could also provide a solution to pandemic itself. A recent study found HIV positive people on treatment 96% less likely to transmit the virus than those not on medications. And world wide, over the course of the last decade, new HIV infections are down 20%.

The use of HIV medications to prevent transmission is not, however, limited to HIV positive people themselves. We have used them for a while to treat HIV negative individuals exposed to the virus reactively: Post Exposure Prophylaxis. Currently in the pipeline is PrEP: Pre Exposure Prophylaxis, the use of meds in HIV negative individuals at high risk proactively. Meanwhile the availability of HIV testing has been expanded to community based organisations such as Yorkshire MESMAC, and home testing kits are available in the states and being piloted here.
The End? – So with these tools in hand and researchers learning more and more about how and by who the virus is still being spread; are we now witnessing the beginning of the end in the story of HIV and AIDS?

The answer to that question lies in the head and heart of every gay and bisexual man in the country. We know that the vast majority of those infecting others don’t know they have the virus, and that the biggest proportion of those have been recently infected themselves. Newly infected individuals carry high viral loads and are highly infectious. To counter we must achieve a dramatic change in culture among gay men with regard to HIV testing.

To achieve this we must answer the question why are so few gay men are testing regularly for HIV? It’s a complex multi-dimensional question. Or is it? I can sum it up in one word: FEAR! Fear of being stigmatised, judged and ridiculed. Fear of being labelled ‘dirty’, ‘unclean’ and ‘riddled’. Fear of being rejected by sexual partners. Put simply it’s fear of the stigma.

What we say about HIV positive people matters. How we respond when someone tells us they are HIV positive matters. That we test regularly ourselves matters. That we talk openly about the fact that we have tested matters. That we tell our friends and relatives we will love and support them no mater what matters.

Four generations have been affected by HIV and AIDS. And yes we have it in our power to end this virus and ensure it doesn’t make it to a fifth generation. It won’t be easy, but if we do it will be because the language we use about HIV and AIDS changes; because our judgements of those who have tested and tested positive changes; because more of us will be testing regularly and talking openly about it; and because support for those with the courage to test will be a given.

The National HIV prevention programme for England has recently launched its ‘National HIV Testing Week’. It will take place in the run up to World Aids Day from Friday 23rd November until the following Friday 30th November. Yorkshire MESMAC will be throwing open the doors to its Testing Times Service that week and promoting everywhere a HIV test is available. Full details of where to test and the other fantastic social events being planned by Yorkshire MESMAC, Gay Wakefield, The New Union, Odyssey and the Rainbow to raise money that week will be posted here.

So come down enjoy the parties and get tested yourself, and why not check out what your friends are intending to do as well. They might just need to know they have your support whatever the result. Let’s do this together! Let’s make the first National HIV testing week mark the beginning of the end for HIV and AIDS in our community.

To be part of the solution to HIV and AIDS, and for loads of additional information about the exciting new developments bringing hope and new energy to the fight against HIV, why not attend one of Yorkshire MESMAC’s Peer Educators workshops. You will get three months FREE Apire membership into the bargain. Alternatively you could ‘like’ our new HIV Peer Educators page on Facebook which is full of information: www.facebook.com/hivpeereducators .

To book an HIV test in Yorkshire you can ring Yorkshire MESMAC on:

  • 01904 620400 (North Yorkshire)
  • 0113 2444 209 (Leeds)
  • 01924 211 116 (Wakefield)
  • 01274 395815 (Bradford)
  • or contact your local GUM (Sexual Health) clinic, click here for details: http://mesmac.co.uk/gum.
Categories: Features, Health

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