Life

What does it mean to be diagnosed with HIV?

As Charlie Sheen's diagnosis continues to make headlines, we take a closer look at what it means to be living with HIV today...

Around 18,000 people in the UK are living with HIV but do not yet know it

CHARLIE Sheen's revelation a fortnight ago that he has been living with HIV after being diagnosed around four years ago put HIV in the spotlight in the run-up to World Aids Day yesterday.

While getting people talking about an illness to which, not long ago, huge stigma attached is a good thing, it has also highlighted that there is still a lot of ignorance about the condition. So what does it mean to be diagnosed with HIV in 2015?

Could I have HIV and not know it?

Yes – it is possible to have HIV and not be aware of it. "Around 18,000 people in the UK are currently living with HIV and do not yet know it," says Sarah Radcliffe, senior policy and campaigns manager at National AIDS Trust (NAT). "In addition to that, 40 per cent of people who found out they had it in the last year were diagnosed late."

Being infected with HIV does usually cause symptoms, but that doesn't mean that everybody will think, or want, to go to their doctor and get tested.

"Research shows that the majority of people who are newly infected with HIV do experience symptoms that we call primary infection. Those are often flu-like symptoms – fever, aches and pains, headaches, sore throat, tiredness – and some people have a distinctive rash, with symptoms usually present within the first few weeks of infection," explains Radcliffe. "

So we'd say at that point, people should go and ask for a test if they think they may have been exposed to HIV – but obviously not everyone will recognise those symptoms as possibly being HIV. From that point onwards, after the first few months, someone can live quite a while without noticing any physical impact, for years in fact."

Crucially, it's in the very early stages – when there's lots of virus in your system and the immune system is trying to fight it off, causing you to feel unwell – that HIV is most infectious.

I'm worried I might have HIV but i don't know what to do...

"If people are worried they might have HIV, the most important thing for them is to get tested," says one woman who works for an HIV charity and has been living with the virus for 15 years. If you do have HIV, being diagnosed means you can then start treatment, and get access to any support you might need.

"Once they start treatment, HIV is very unlikely to have any serious impact in terms of long-term health," she adds. "Also, people can go on to have children, who will almost certainly be born without HIV. People living with HIV on treatment are highly unlikely to develop serious complications and AIDS-related illnesses, and their life expectancy is the same as anyone else's."

How will a HIV diagnosis affect my sex life?

Most new HIV cases in the UK are caused by having unprotected sex (without a condom) with somebody who is infected. However, even if you do have HIV, treatments have come a very long way since the terrifying awareness campaigns of the 1980s.

While HIV can't be cured, antiretroviral drugs now mean the presence of the virus can be reduced to such a degree that the chance of spreading it to somebody else is very low.

Will I be destined to get really sick?

No – as well as significantly reducing the risk of transmission, HIV treatments now mean it's highly unlikely that anybody diagnosed (providing they have access to treatments) will develop serious complications due to the virus. AIDS-related illnesses in the UK are now wholly avoidable.

Facts & stats

  • Around 110,000 people in Britain and Northern Ireland are living with HIV, meaning it affects around 1 in every 360 people aged 15-59. Over the last decade, the number of people accessing specialist care for HIV has steadily grown.
  • Anybody can get HIV, but some groups remain more at risk. Gay and bisexual men have the highest rates (44 per cent of people living with HIV in the UK fall into this group), followed by black African men and women (who account for 34 per cent). Other groups more affected are those in prisons and injecting drug users.
  • HIV can be passed on through infected bodily fluids, including breast milk. However, treatments and procedures can significantly reduce the chances of transmission.

For more information see worldaidsday.org.

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