This blog is written by our clinicians and aims to keep patients informed with up to date information on medical conditions.
Advances in HIV treatment with HAART (Highly Active AntiRetroviral Treatment) have transformed an HIV diagnosis from a death-sentence to a chronic manageable condition. People diagnosed with HIV can expect to live a normal lifespan,(Tong: 2012:1) and in some instance a greater than normal lifespan (Cairns, 2014).
Despite this an HIV diagnosis remains highly stigmatised. This stigmatization can be internal and external. Individuals diagnosed with the virus often still face a lot of complex emotions around this news. The stigma and fear of what others may not understand about the virus can be difficult to come to terms with. Similarly, the assumptions and judgmental attitudes by others about what the person has ‘been up to’ can add to these complicated feeling. This adds to the distress when one is given a positive result of the HIV antibody test.
Finding out that you are HIV positive might bring up unaddressed feelings and issues from the past. Often gay men or MSM (men who have sex with men) find that an HIV positive diagnosis can, on some level, bring an individual back to their own coming-out process. It can return one to the isolated and sometimes confusing and conflicted feelings about being gay. It is as if a HIV diagnosis can, in some way, ‘confirm’ how different, shameful or dirty they may feel themselves. They have gone and got this ‘terrible disease’ that proves how awful they are. For many this can have echoes of their feelings in general around being gay.
It is often found that with a new diagnosis of HIV, the individual’s psychological and emotional state is now more of a concern than their medical health. Having a positive HIV test may still resonate with a person as being given a death sentence. They may have a myriad of overwhelming feelings about what will happen to them. This feeling can also being compounded by the fact that there is so much known about the virus today. It can become a double stigmatization; in a way a, ‘you should have known better’ attitude. Again, this can be both internally felt and externally perceived from others.
The advances in treatment and the amount science has discovered about the virus in the past 30 years has been extremely significant. Treatment has become, in essence, straight forward. However one’s emotional state when coming to terms with a positive diagnosis often benefits from the support of a counsellor, psychotherapist, key worker or health advisor.
HIV is a virus that is passed through blood or bodily fluid. It affects the CD4 blood cells that make up our immune system. While doing this, the Viral Load builds within the body. This eventually can make the person unwell and contagious in high-risk situations – unprotected sex, and needle sharing – for instance. If left undiagnosed HIV will bring the numbers of CD4 down to a level where it would be difficult for the immune system to mount a defence against opportunistic diseases. This process damages the immune system.
AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a syndrome not a disease. It is what can happen if HIV damages the immune system so much so that it is no longer functioning properly and opportunistic diseases take hold and can lead to death.
HAART – Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy
This is no cure for the HIV virus. However, HAART treatment entails a combination of antiretroviral drugs that work to lower the Viral Load in the body. While doing this the immune system can begin to reconstitute itself. Treatment has become so effective that if the individual adheres to their medication the virus can be brought down to levels where it is considered ‘Undetectable’ in blood tests. There are several studies looking into the individual’s ability to pass the virus on if they have had an undetectable viral load and no sexually transmitted infections for six months.
Post Exposure Prophylaxis [PEP] consists of antiretrovirals that can be prescribed after a high-risk incident. It has been shown to prevent HIV from taking hold in the system. However, this is very time sensitive. This treatment should begin as soon as possible after the incident, up to three days.
Pre Exposure Prophylaxis [PREP] has been found effective from helping to prevent becoming infected with HIV. This is a pill taken daily. It appears from research that it blocks possibly HIV from entering the system.
Because treatment has become so effective there has been a rise of condomless sex within the MSM (men who have sex with men) community. Some individuals report experiencing a ‘sexual liberation’. However, it is important to understand having an undetectable viral load and being HIV negative are two separate situations.
As HIV has become more treatable it has all but vanished from the headlines. Still it is estimated that in the UK the number of people living with undiagnosed HIV is rapidly increasing. Among gay and bisexual men the numbers of undiagnosed HIV have risen to numbers not seen since the mid 1990’s.
If you feel testing for HIV might be a good idea contact ROC Private Clinic to arrange a safe confidential screening. Results can take minutes.
Furthermore if you are worried about the idea of testing and what a positive result may mean and feel counselling might help, or if you have tested positive and would like some confidential psychological support, please contact us to arrange a session with our counsellor/psychotherapist.
Cairns, G., (2014) ‘Life expectancy now considerably exceeds the average in some with HIV in the US’ AIDSMap.
Tong, W., (2013) ‘Life Expectancy With HIV Jumps 15 Years From 2000-2002 to 2007-20007’, TheBodyPro.com.