Tag Archives: GMFA

Why are we afraid to get tested for HIV?

testing

For some people the idea of being tested for HIV is as simple as making a note in a calendar, an entry which sits comfortably beneath a dentist appointment and above a mother’s birthday. For others, the idea of making that appointment, or taking that long walk to the clinic, is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences they can imagine. However, in an age where the numbers of people diagnosed with HIV are increasing, has our natural fear of the unknown become a luxury we simply can’t afford?

Many years ago it was a scary disease. We called it AIDS and it became a name associated with sin and death. The massive number of infections, particularly in the gay community, were staggering, and as the death toll slowly crept up, nations across the world panicked. It’s impossible for any society to come through such a dark time and emerge unscathed, and so the fear of a silent killer left a scar on our cultural memory which has never really healed, and the mere mention of HIV and AIDS still has a way of stopping conversations.

Thankfully, things have changed since then and treatment for HIV and AIDS is better now than it has ever been. People who have the condition are now finding that their lives have not changed completely, and they are still able to live as long and do all the same things they could before. It’s true that they now have a few additional concerns to think about but with the help of medication, HIV is now manageable. However, it seems that attitudes have not moved on as much as the treatment, with people still finding themselves afraid, ashamed and worried that their lives will never be the same again.

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To try and get a better understanding of the feelings and attitudes behind the diagnosis, I spoke with Sona Barbossa, a counselling team leader with the GMI Partnership. Over the course of our conversation, Sona revealed that the anxiety surrounding being tested and anxiety about the results is something which does prevent people from being tested regularly. ‘I don’t think it’s so much a fear about the test itself, but more fear of what the results might be and having to deal with that. There is still a stigma around it and I see many guys who have not been tested for years because they’re afraid of finding out the results and having to make decisions upon learning their results. Also, there’s still a lot of thinking around where people believe that it won’t happen to them, so they don’t see the point in being tested.’ When I asked Sona if she thought attitudes have changed much since HIV first came to public attention, she told us she didn’t think so. ‘People still connect HIV with promiscuity, the gay scene and with drugs. There’s also still a lot of shame and guilt that surrounds the condition, which I think plays a large role in whether people want to be tested or not and can prevent people from making those all important first steps to be tested.’

The fear of the condition is more than understandable. Even with new treatments being developed every day, HIV is still a lifelong condition which also has lifelong consequences. There’s also a very real stigma still attached, which has always been associated with homosexuality, promiscuity and intravenous drug use. This forces a lot of people who have HIV into a double life to keep it a secret from their friends and family. Sona herself pointed out during our conversation that a lot of people still feel like they will be shunned by their loved ones. ‘The fear of being judged and being looked at differently does form a large part of why people may keep this condition from their loved ones. They think that people may change towards them, and worry that their friends won’t accept them any more, and obviously the worry that their families won’t accept them any more. With this kind of attitude pervading society, it’s little wonder that people would be put off from learning their status, as it forces people to think about a lot of things before they even go to have the test done.’

According to statistics gathered by the gay men’s health charity GMFA, 59,000 gay men were tested for HIV last year. While this seems like a large figure, I was later informed by Carl Burnell, the CEO of GMFA, that this figure may only make up 15-25% of the estimated gay population. This becomes all the more worrying when GMFA’s recent statistics uncovered that 82% of new HIV infections are actually passed on from people who have not been checked themselves. The organisation has consistently fought to encourage people to learn their status and  to be checked at least once a year, however in the course of their work, they find that anxiety about HIV is having a definitive effect on preventing people from being checked. When they examined the reasons for not going to be tested, they found that 30% of those asked noted that nerves about their results were a factor, with a further 10% going on to say this was the main thing stopping them from taking the test. Burnell also noted that though people are still keen to avoid becoming HIV positive, their awareness that the condition is all around them is decreasing, and this can potentially lead people to take risks with their sexual health. He also commented that there is still a popular misconception among young gay men that HIV is not something they need to worry about, as it’s still considered by some to be a disease that only harms older people.

However, it isn’t just methods of treatment which have moved on, but also methods of detection. Time was, that if you wanted to have an HIV test you would have to go to your GP and ask for the test specifically and then be referred to have your blood taken and examined. The process would take anywhere between 3 days and 2 weeks depending on the area, and the very idea of waiting for the results could be described as hell-on-earth for people who were brave enough to be tested in the first place. Now people are able to walk in and be tested within half an hour and have their results the same day, sometimes within minutes. Similarly, thanks to the work of organisations like the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), people are now able to order and administer the test in the privacy of their own home, send off a small vial of blood and have their results sent to them via email or even text. The sad fact is that even with all these different ways to be diagnosed, not enough people are going out and being regularly checked.

HIV TESTINGHere at So So Gay we like to practice what we preach, so when it came to writing a feature that dealt with being fearless and going to get tested, I decided to go out and take the test myself. Having been in a long-term relationship and suddenly single again, it seemed like the right time to know my status, since I was back on the dating scene. I picked the 56 Dean Street clinic in London for its walk-in service and quick results. The staff were amazing and they made me feel reassured every step of the way. They made me feel like, even though I may have been nervous to be there, I was doing the right thing by being tested. I must admit I was scared – after all the idea of drawing blood at the best of times is scary, especially for a needle-phobe like me –  but I felt that whatever the result, it would all be OK. It’s impossible to be in that situation and not wonder about what happens if you get a bad result and I was no different as I sat in the waiting room. However, I was seen by the nurse extremely quickly and within a few minutes of me sitting down in the private room, we were ready to draw blood. The nurse was a saint and kept me calm, and reminded me that even if I was HIV+, then I would still be the same person I was when I walked in, and that there are services out there to help me every step of the way. When my result came back, I was thankfully HIV-. Although I was relieved, I also knew that being tested was only half the battle, so I went and made an appointment to come back in 6 months to be checked again. I felt like it was a responsible thing to do, not just for my own health, but also for the benefit of anyone I might come to know in the future.

The truth is that it’s very easy to get ‘caught short’ in life and sometimes that leads us to take risks when we know we shouldn’t. The true test is when we make these mistakes, we have to make sure that we take the time to know our own status, since it doesn’t just affect us, but also the people we care about. HIV is no longer the death sentence it used to be and people are able to live normal, healthy and happy lives like they did before. However, this is thanks to the amazing progress we have made in treating the condition and we can only begin to do that when we make the decision to get tested and keep on top of our health. It’s a scary prospect to some and no one takes that for granted, but by taking the chance to be tested, you could be buying yourself years of life. Speaking to Carl at GMFA, he even proclaimed that we could well see the cure to HIV in our lifetimes, so let’s all make sure we are all there to see it.

Some key facts to remember:

  1. HIV is a disease which is transmitted by the sharing of bodily fluids, i.e. blood and semen. It does not discriminate against people who are older, more sexually active or people who use drugs.
  2. There is currently no cure for HIV, so people with the condition have it for the rest of their lives.
  3. With an early diagnosis people are able to live long lives. If it is left untreated, then it becomes harder to fight.
  4. People who have HIV are still the same people they have always been, and it is wrong to judge people or treat them differently because of their status.
  5. Condoms are not 100% effective. There is still a chance you can get HIV if you are safe, so you need to get tested at least once a year to know if you have the condition or not. The only ‘safe’ sex, is no sex.

Above all, remember that we have a responsibility to care for each other as well as for ourselves because, regardless of positive or negative, we are still united as a community. Be brave, go out and get tested so you know your status. There is an old saying which says ‘knowledge is power’, but in this instance it would be more accurate to say ‘knowledge is life’, whatever your status may be.

Via So So gay

HAVE YOU EVER HAD A HIV TEST?

If you’re interested in having a HIV test, we offer a completely free and confidential rapid HIV test and you’ll get the results within 60 seconds from a simple finger prick test. We use the Insti HIV test produced by BioLytical laboratories. The test is 99.96% accurate from 90 days post contact for detecting HIV 1 and 2 antibodies. We also have a mobile testing van which is often out in communities providing mobile rapid HIV tests. Appointments are not always necessary, if you would like a test, please contact us on 0116 2559995

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HIV Charities Welcome the Lifting of Lifetime Ban on Gay Men Donating Blood

 

The Government announced this month that the rules on gay men* donating blood will change from a lifetime ban to a 12 month deferral period.  This decision follows a review of the current policies around exclusion and deferral from blood donation by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO).

NAT (National AIDS Trust) called for a proactive, comprehensive and evidence-based review of the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood – in light of improved testing and screening technologies, and anti-discrimination obligations.  This review was strongly supported by other HIV and LGBT organisations, including Terrence Higgins Trust who had been working with NHS Blood and Transplant, and GMFA, who joined NAT and THT on the advisory group for the review.

Carl Burnell, Chief Executive of GMFA the gay men’s health charity, comments:

‘The removal of the ban to a one year deferral is great news but it’s going to leave some gay men frustrated that they still can’t donate blood. However the one year deferral is based on scientific evidence to ensure the safety of the blood supply in relation to hepatitis B and HIV. Gay men can play their part in ensuring the UK has a safe supply of blood for everyone, including gay men, by adhering to the one year deferral.

It will be news to most that hepatitis B, rather than HIV has kept the deferral period to one year. Hepatitis B is completely preventable if you get vaccinated against it, and I’d urge all gay men to do so. If all gay men get vaccinated against Hepatitis B, and prevalence of hepatitis B falls in our community as a result, it would be appropriate to re-examine the evidence and reduce the deferral period even further.’

Deborah Jack, Chief Executive of NAT (National AIDS Trust), comments:

‘The lifetime ban on gay men donating blood has been at the centre of much controversy and debate in recent years, particularly as it became clear that this rule and current science were completely out of sync.  NAT was instrumental in securing a proactive, time-based review of the present lifetime bans on blood donation and we are delighted to see the review’s recommendations for change being implemented.  This decision is now based on evidence and the safety of the blood supply will be maintained.  However, we are adamant that this decision will need to be reviewed again in the future as science and the HIV epidemic evolves, and new evidence emerges.   We must ensure that changes in these areas are proactively monitored so that we avoid having out-dated rules in place that do not benefit the public and instead simply discriminate against certain groups.’

Sir Nick Partridge, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), comments:

‘We welcome this decision, which is based on strong new evidence that all the experts are agreed on. These regulations will ensure the safety of the blood supply for all of us while also being fair and equal in their application. We can now detect blood-borne viruses earlier and have more understanding of them, and the change reflects that.

‘The remaining deferral regulation for sexually active gay men is based on their heightened risk, as a group, of sexually acquired blood-borne viruses. Changing that depends on reducing gay men’s risk of HIV and other STIs to the same level as the rest of the population, and re-emphasising the vital importance of safer sex as far too many gay men still become infected with HIV each year. We will continue to campaign to improve gay men’s sexual health to a level where the regulations can be the same for all, regardless of sexuality.’

Currently, men who have ever had oral or anal sex with another man (with or without a condom) are permanently excluded from blood donation in the UK. The change means that in future only men who have had anal or oral sex with another man in the past 12 months (with or without a condom) will be asked not to donate blood. Men whose last relevant sexual contact with another man was more than 12 months ago will be able to donate (subject to meeting the other donor selection criteria).

The safety of the blood supply has been at the heart of SaBTO’s review, and the conclusion that safety levels will be maintained following the rule change is supported by the most up-to-date scientific evidence.  Blood donor selection criteria and other safety measures such as stringent testing mean the UK blood supply is among the safest in the world.  There has been no documented transmission of a blood-borne virus through blood transfusions in the UK since 2005, with no HIV transmission since 2002.

The lifting of the permanent ban on gay men donating blood and replacement with a 12 month deferral period not only aligns the new rule with current science and evidence, it also takes into account equality laws which do not allow discrimination based on sexual orientation.  Any difference in treatment of gay men must be a balanced response based on evidence and appropriate assessment of risk.

The 12 month deferral period takes into account the elevated levels of blood-borne viruses amongst gay men and the ‘window periods’ where viruses go undetected during screening.  HIV can be detected four weeks after infection but hepatitis B takes significantly longer, and then has a second window period in the later stages of infection (up to 12 months) which is why there must be a deferral period of one year for those most at risk of transmitting the viruses.
Whilst we are pleased to welcome this rule change for gay men, we will continue to encourage SaBTO to regularly review their restrictions on blood donation related to sexual behaviour (including other groups in addition to gay men).  Particularly as the epidemics around blood-borne viruses evolve and scientific evidence changes and advances.

* References to gay men include men who have ever had anal or oral sex with men but do not consider themselves gay or bisexual.

Original Article via National AIDS Trust

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