HIV/AIDS treatment has made tremendous strides since the early 1990s, turning what was once a death sentence into a condition that’s generally manageable with treatment—but you can’t treat what you don’t know you have.
In the UK, where the rate of new infections among gay and bisexual men is nearly as high as it was when HIV first entered the scene, healthcare providers and LGBT activists are raising awareness with the first-ever European HIV Testing Week, from November 22-29.
The Terrence Higgins Trust, the largest sexual health nonprofit in the United Kingdom, is aiming to double the number of men who have sex with men (MSM) who are tested for HIV annually, by raising awareness and encouraging more testing at health clinics as part of the regular check-up.
Figures from the trust suggest that there are currently 100,000 people living with HIV in the UK, and 20,000 of them are unaware of the fact. Public Health England found that rates of infection are on the rise; there were 3,250 new HIV infections reported in 2012, compared to 3,010 in 2011. Statistics also point to around 490 people in England dying from HIV/AIDS annually, despite the availability of treatment through the National Healthcare Service.
A spokesperson for the National AIDS Trust, Deborah Jack, said in a statement, “We know at least half of new transmissions originate from people who don’t know they have HIV. It is important that gay and bisexual men are being pro-actively offered an HIV test at least annually by their sexual health clinic or GP.
“Awareness messages about condom use and regular testing don’t seem to be reaching gay and bisexual men who are at risk of HIV or changing their behaviour. These statistics should prompt local authorities to provide adequate HIV prevention and testing services. HIV prevention and testing must be at the top of their public health agenda not just during HIV testing week and World AIDS Day but all year round.
“But this is also a wake-up call for the gay community. Not only should gay and bisexual men be offered tests—they shouldn’t wait to be asked. They need to take the initiative—and get regularly tested.”
In addition to antiretroviral medication being more effective when started as soon as possible after HIV infection, the purpose of the treatment is to lower the patient’s viral count, often to the point of being undetectable; this means that someone who is being appropriately treated is considerably less likely to infect a partner than they would be if they were unaware of their HIV status.
To promote National HIV Testing Week, former soldier James Wharton, who was the first openly gay person to appear on the cover of “Soldier” magazine, an official publication of the British Army, joined the Terrence Higgins Trust at King’s Cross, where he demonstrated how quick and easy today’s finger-prick blood tests are; he got his result (negative) in just fifteen minutes.
He told press, “I’m proud to be launching National HIV Testing Week. There are lots of people out there who don’t realise how quick and easy it is to test. Modern tests are done in minutes, and you get your result there and then. It’s incredibly important to know your status. I fully believe we can win the fight against HIV, but it’s up to us to keep testing, testing, testing.”
The official website for European HIV Testing Week, which lists testing sites and other events, is here.