AIDS - dismissing the stigma

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HIV/AIDSIt has been a long-held misconception that Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV) claims the lives of its victim quickly and only affects gay men, African people and drug users.

However, of the 2,913 patients treated for the infection in the East of England in 2005, 78 per cent were heterosexual non-drug users.

In the Harlow district, there are 65 patients receiving treatment.

And with the help of modern-day treatments, the majority of patients are living relatively normal lives.

I met two patients who are being treated by West Essex Primary Care Trust at the Sexual Health and Family Planning Clinic at Princess Alexandra Hospital, Harlow, to put the record straight about the stigma surrounding the epidemic, and what it is like to live with the infection.

Genie*, a 22-year-old mother-of-two from Zimbabwe, caught HIV when she was date-raped in her homeland when she was 16.

She never discovered she had the infection until she was pregnant with her first child and was naturally devastated.

Genie said: "Physically, HIV hasn't affected me that much, but it's the notion of getting it. People assume if you get HIV then you must have asked for it, and there's this notion that if you have HIV you will die more or less in a couple of years. But that's just not true.

"Not until the birth of my second child did I come to terms with living with HIV. It took me a very long time, but now I don't think about it.

"The help I got from the clinic here was brilliant. No-one is judgmental, and the support is great."

Having the infection has made Genie assured of what needs to be done to battle both the stigma surrounding HIV and how to battle a growing rise in cases.

"People know a lot about syphilis and gonorrhea, but there needs to be better education about HIV and AIDS, and parents have a big role to play in that," she insisted.

"It shouldn't be left up to the schools, GPs or just health advisers. Sex is not dirty and plays a big part in life."

Another patient treated at the clinic is Dave*, who was diagnosed with HIV in October last year and is another in the so-called common' category - he is gay.

Unlike Genie, Dave admits it was probably the best thing to finally be diagnosed after almost two years of not feeling well.

He said: "It's the best thing I was ever told. Now I know about it I can get treated for it.

"The biggest problem about HIV is not knowing and the best way to stop it is by knowing about it.

"I probably had more partners than I should have, but I'm not a particularly promiscuous person. I've been with my partner for seven years and we got married last year.

"I find that having HIV is no different to being normal. It has never interfered with me living my life."

He added: "It's the same as diabetes or epilepsy - it can't be cured but can be controlled and I'm told as long as I take the drugs properly then I'll get better. And I have. I haven't felt this good in a few years."

He added: "As far as I'm concerned HIV should be screened as regularly as cervical cancer. Everyone having sex should be tested."

Dr Gail Crowe, a leading consultant at the clinic where Genie and Dave are treated, agrees the stigma attached to the disease should be dispelled and puts the rapid rise in cases down to two reasons.

She said: "HIV is increasing year on year partially because more and more people are being diagnosed and partially because the people who already have it are not dying like they used to.

"There has been a dramatic improvement in HIV care in the last ten years.

"Whereas in the early to mid-1990s patients had to take one drug with up to 24 pills three times, now they can take a combination of three drugs in two to five pills a day.

"These rapid advancements in treatment have meant that patients can go about their lives in relative normality."

She added: "We have 125 HIV patients treated here - a third are gay men, just over half are black African and the rest are white heterosexuals who are non-drug users.

"Many people have this assumption that it's not their problem and won't affect them, and it's quite easy to distance oneself from the problem."

Dr Crowe also insisted that HIV - a virus that causes illness by destroying the immune system, leaving the patient prone to infection and some cancers - could be successfully suppressed if caught early.

"HIV is an easy infection not to get," she said. "But people who are sexually active should get checked regularly. If diagnosed early, and if the person gets the right treatment, there is a good chance of living a normal life.

"It's worth getting checked out."

*Names changed to protect identity of patients

source - Citizen