Don't let the stigma win

TODAY is World Aids Day.As health experts announce there are more people in the East of England living with HIV, feature writer JAMES MARSTON speaks to one man to find out how he copes with the condition.

TODAY is World Aids Day.

As health experts announce there are more people in the East of England living with HIV, feature writer JAMES MARSTON speaks to one man to find out how he copes with the condition.

ROBERT isn't keen on being photographed.

But it's not because he's ashamed of having HIV it's because he want to protect the confidentiality of his clients.

Robert, 41, said: “I have HIV and I work with people with HIV. I have clients and their neighbours might know me so I tend to be discreet about my condition. I'm happy to talk about it but I want to make sure my clients aren't affected by pictures of me or my surname appearing in the press.”

Fair enough.

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Diagnosed in October 1998, Robert was living in London at the time.

He said: “I was horrified and I was stunned. In fact I don't remember much about it really. I'd been suffering from feeling tired and run down. I went to the doctors because it had lasted a long time and he suggested I have an HIV test.

“It had never entered my mind before. I had a test and a week later I found out I was positive.”

Robert, who now lives in Lowestoft, thinks he contracted HIV from one incident of unprotected sex.

He said: “I became infected in a moment of madness. It only takes the one time.”

A gay man, Robert is keen to stress HIV/AIDS is not exclusively a gay condition.

He said: “Anyone having sex should have safe sex. HIV isn't just about gay people and most people with HIV in the east of England acquired it during heterosexual sex.”

Telling his family was difficult.

Robert said: “There is a lot of stigma around HIV and I have met people who have some horrendous stories.

“My parents have been very supportive. They didn't know much about HIV and it was difficult to explain to them about contracting the disease.

“I came back to Suffolk in January 1999 and my health was beginning to deteriorate. In November 1999 I started treatment.”

Just before Robert started treatment he felt a bit better and decided to help the Suffolk-based Fightback Trust.

He said: “Initially my Dad found out about the trust. The trust supports people who have and are affected by HIV and I am now the chairman of the charity and involved in outreach work. I wanted to do something and put something back.”

According to a recent report published by the Health Protection Agency more people in the East of England are living with HIV and in Suffolk there are between 200 and 300 living with the condition.

Adrian Kirkby, county sexual healthy and harm reduction manager for Suffolk Primary Care Trust said: “Thankfully numbers are small but living with HIV is a huge burden for those with the condition and numbers are rising every year. There are now twice the number of people with HIV than there was five years ago.”

Mr Kirkby said stigma and prejudice surrounding HIV stops people coming forward for diagnosis and treatment,

He added: “World Aids Day is about beating that prejudice and we need to get the message across to as many people as possible.”

In 2005 47,514 people received treatment for HIV in the UK of whom 2,925 came from the East of England. This compares to 2004 when the national figure for treatment was 42,182 and the regional one was 2,462.

In the East of England the number of new diagnoses increased by 2per cent from 577 in 2004 to 586 in 2005.

Robert added: “I still think people in rural areas think it won't happen to them but I'm afraid it does. My health is fine and HIV is not the death sentence it once was but you do get down in the dumps and wish you didn't have it.”

The majority of people living with HIV in the East of England (54pc) are Black African and practically all (94pc) acquired HIV heterosexually.

By contrast sex between men accounts for most cases (59pc) among white people.

Dr Joe Kearney, Regional Director for the HPA East of England, said: “Our report shows that we cannot afford to become complacent about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. If people are sexually active they need to practice safer sex to protect themselves and their partners.

“It is helpful that we have published our report at the same time as the Government has launched a sexual health campaign which is encouraging young people to use condoms. The Health Protection Agency supports this campaign and we will be working with our NHS partners to remind people that HIV and other sexually transmitted infections have not gone away.

“It is estimated that 63,500 people are living with HIV in the UK and that up to a third are unaware of their condition. So if people who are sexually active and have the opportunity to be tested they should take up the offer.”

The report has also been published to coincide with the run up to World AIDS Day and also marks the 25th anniversary of the first reported cases of AIDS in the UK.

In response to the Health Protection Agency's latest statistics on HIV and sexual health, Nick Partridge, chief executive of sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust said: “We can prevent new infections by hammering home those safer sex messages to people most at risk of HIV.

“The message is clear: use a condom, and get tested if you think you've been at risk of infection.

In 2005, 527 people in the East of England were newly diagnosed with HIV.

These latest statistics make sombre reading but the future for Robert is by no means all doom and gloom.

Robert added: “I'm one of the lucky ones. I look forward to the future in the same way as everyone else. “I have a healthy lifestyle and a healthy diet but I am getting on with my life. It's just something you learn to live with.”

Anyone who thinks they have put themselves at risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection should discuss their concerns with their GP or attend a sexual health clinic. It is important to bear in mind that some sexually transmitted infections can have no symptoms.

Weblink www.worldaidsday.org

www.nat.org.uk

www.fightbacktrust.org.uk

THE table below shows the number of new diagnoses for HIV in 2005 and the number of people living with HIV who accessed HIV related care.

Estimates suggest that approximately a third of people living with HIV are unaware they have the condition, so the true number of people living with HIV in each region will be higher than the number below.

Region New HIV diagnoses 2005 HIV infected people accessing care

East of England 527 2925

Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire 236 1342

Essex 134 767

Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire 157 816

Terrence Higgins Trust is the UK's leading HIV and sexual health charity, providing a wide range of services to over 50,000 people a year. The charity also campaigns and lobbies for greater political and public understanding of the personal, social and medical impact of HIV and sexual health.

What is the 2006 theme?

In the UK the theme of World AIDS Day is You, Me, Us - we can stop the spread of HIV and end prejudice. The campaign is designed to raise the profile of HIV in the UK and encourage people to take action. Despite growing numbers of people infected, HIV is a preventable disease and collective and individual action can bring an end to new infections and stop prejudice.

Why is HIV an issue in the UK?

There are almost 60,000 people living with HIV in the UK and 20 people are newly diagnosed with HIV every day. The number of new HIV diagnoses every year has doubled since 1998. Yet despite rising numbers of people diagnosed, awareness of how HIV is transmitted is lower than it was five years ago and one in three people living with HIV are unaware they are infected.

In addition there are still vulnerable groups who cannot access free treatment, putting their health and lives at risk.

People living with HIV still experience discrimination, and silence around HIV hamper efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. Greater efforts and increased funding are urgently needed to raise awareness and improve prevention of HIV in the UK.

Who is most at risk of HIV in the UK?

Both gay men and African born people in the UK are disproportionately affected by HIV. Infections among heterosexuals and intravenous drug-users are also beginning to increase.

What is HIV?

HIV stands for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV attacks the body's immune system - the body's defence against diseases. HIV, if detected early, can be treated very successfully. With treatment, people living with HIV will probably have a normal lifespan, although serious health problems may still occur.

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. A person is considered to have AIDS when the immune system has become so weak that it can no longer fight off a whole range of diseases with which it would normally cope. If HIV is diagnosed late, treatment may be less effective in preventing AIDS.

How is HIV passed on?

HIV is not transmitted via casual contact or kissing. It can only be passed on through exposure to HIV-infected blood, sexual or rectal fluids, or breast milk.

The most common ways are via:

Sexual intercourse with an infected partner where blood or sexual fluids like semen and vaginal or rectal secretions enter the body through the penis, vagina or anus.

Sharing infected needles or syringes when injecting drugs.

From an HIV positive mother to her child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding. However, there are proven steps mothers can take to reduce the possibility of their unborn child contracting HIV.

You cannot get HIV from day-to-day contact such as: Kissing, Touching, Holding hands, Sharing eating utensils, Toilet seats, Swimming pools.

How to prevent HIV

The best way to protect yourself and your sexual partner from HIV is by consistent and proper use of condoms. Condoms are the only form of contraception that will protect you from HIV and must be used with care if they are to be most effective.

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