World AIDS Day: Living With HIV in the 21st Century

As World AIDS Day arrives this Dec 1, the Independent has a touching account of a young man who was diagnosed with HIV and what this meant for him.  It also contains some concerning stats about HIV in the UK.

In contrast to the gloomy prognosis and often ultimately fatal outcome that was the experience of the eighties and nineties, HIV is a condition that in the 21st century now be treated and well managed with medication.  The majority of treatments are relatively simple to take (many of them just once a day) and side effects are fewer and easier to handle than used to be the case.

However, without the hard-hitting “Don’t die of ignorance” campaigns we saw in the 80s, it might be easy for young people not to worry about HIV and think it is just a case of taking a few pills if they contract the disease.  But life with HIV is not a walk in the park:

  • You have to take the medications on time every day.  Sometimes their are food restrictions such as taking the tablets with or without food, e.g. if you have to take your tablets with food then that means you have to make sure one of your meals is at the same time every day, regardless of what social plans you may have.
  • There are still side-effects and many people with HIV experience the odd “runny tummy”.  One of the medications can cause significant sleep disturbance.
  • Being diagnosed can very traumatic, as the account in the Independent outlines.  It can affect your mental health and lead to depression.
  • Then there is the question of whether you tell your family, friends, work colleagues or a new employer at a job interview about your condition?  How do you broach the subject and how will people react?  Will they be supportive or critical?  Could you lose friendships by being honest?
  • If you miss a few doses, the version of HIV you carry can quickly become resistant and the medication stops working.  Not only does that particular medication stop working but you may rule out some other treatment options, as other drugs of the same class may not work for you either.
  • You cannot get away with long boozy, party weekends (not that I’m recommending them anyway) where you skip your meds.
  • How do you handle sexual relationships after diagnosis?  Do you tell others that you are HIV+?  Will you feel guilty if you keep quiet?  If you don’t tell a new sexual partner from the start and then the relationships becomes more serious, at what point do you tell them?  How will they react to the fact that you weren’t honest from the beginning?

So, if there is a message I would like to send on this Worlds AIDS Day, it is this:

  • If you think unsafe sex does not matter, because HIV is treatable, then think again.  It is treatable but getting an HIV diagnosis will change your life and it may be more difficult to handle than you think it will be.
  • If you have had unsafe sex and are worried, get tested.  It might be good news: you may not have been infected.  Even if it is bad news, it is better to know: the earlier you start treatment, the better the prognosis for a long and healthy life.
  • There are many places you can go to arrange an HIV test, or get help if you have had a diagnosis.  One of them is the Terrence Higgins Trust.

This post is based on my own experience, as I have lived with HIV for the past 15 years and remain healthy, employed and live a very active life.