Do you know your HIV status? Are you using protection? What kind? Do you understand the forms of transmission? Do you know your partner’s status? Does your partner know their status? Do you know about PEP, or PrEP? Some may have you believe HIV is a killer… actually, it’s not. It’s now treatable, and no worse than diabetes. But you’re still at risk, right? Watch out who you sleep with, but be careful; don’t discriminate or stigmatise HIV either. This applies if you’re gay or straight. But especially if you’re gay. Quick, better check out these statistics!
Confused? You’d be forgiven.
Anybody with two pairs of eyes will tell you that when it comes to HIV, there are a great many messages flying around out there. This barrage includes information on; at-risk groups (whatever you’re told, we are all at risk), prevention (reminding non-carriers that it’s an awful, awful virus), treatment (reassuring carriers that it’s not so nearly as bad as it used to be) and opposing stigma (don’t discriminate).
While we are fed this stuff on a daily basis, the mixed nature of these messages is contributing to a rising confusion, particularly amongst a younger generation of people. Even the HIV epidemic of the 80s has now become nothing more than a history lesson for many… another page in the burgeoning portfolio of facts and figures about HIV and how it affects us today. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a bit snow-blind.
Even the evidence is mystifying. This week, new statistics were released informing us that new cases of HIV infection in the UK are at their highest for 20 years. But this evidence isn’t as cut and dried as it might seem. Yes, it points to the fact that HIV transmission is on the rise, but this is partially because many more people are getting tested. That’s good, right? So is this all a fuss over nothing? Is HIV really such an issue any more?
The truth is that HIV is a greater issue today than it has ever been before. Increasing numbers of people are contracting the virus. Statistics tell us that 1 in 650 people in the UK lives with HIV. This may not sound a great many, but equates to an estimated 96,000 people. And this number is rising. In this day and age, with our knowledge, this should not be happening. So the question remains, why is it?
The problem is largely caused by the perplexity of information thrust at us from every direction. On one hand, we are encouraged to take the risks with a deadly seriousness. On the other, we’re fed reassuring messages such as: ‘living with HIV is now no worse than living with diabetes’. Statements like this risk trivialising the problem, particularly to a younger generation. It says ‘if you contract HIV, that’s ok, because it can be treated’. And that’s true, but it doesn’t change the fact that HIV is a life-altering condition.
While our current level of knowledge represents a great leap forward for medical science, it is also hindering us. Instead of fearing HIV as we once did, we are blinded by it all; science, statistics, the anecdotes we hear from friends in the pub, the subtly varied messages passed on by sexual health clinics and the recounted experiences of an older generation of men and women who witnessed, first hand, the terror brought by HIV in the 1980s. But the various dialogues on the physical, social and cultural impacts of HIV blur the lines between fact and opinion, and this is what leads to misunderstanding and misinformation.
So what’s the solution? Although the scare tactics of the first prominent HIV campaign may now seem melodramatic, at the time, ‘Dying of Ignorance’ was a very real fear. Twenty years on, people may be at much less risk of dying of AIDS, and our understanding of HIV may be much greater, but we have earned this knowledge at the expense of a clear message. While the tombstone campaign is well engrained in the nation’s shared cultural memory, there is no modern day equivalent. And it’s time to get the message straight.
Wherever we have been, and wherever we may now be, there has only ever been one way to stop HIV; by knowing your status in order to help prevent the spread of the virus. This is exactly why Terrence Higgins Trust’s ‘It Starts With Me’ campaign is the most important initiative for a generation. Instead of bombarding us with more information, it is doing what needs to be done; getting back to basics.
Last week was National HIV Testing Week. If you’re confused about the risks or implications of HIV, that’s ok. However, there’s really no longer any need for it to be.Start by getting tested and knowing your status. Then, if you want more information, don’t ask that bloke down the pub or read the scaremongering tabloids. Go to a reputable source and educate yourself. We have one shared goal; to beat HIV. But if we’re to do that, we must no longer let confusion be an excuse for ignorance.