With around 250 people in Cornwall living with HIV - and around a quarter of them not even aware of it - a team in Truro is trying to raise awareness of the condition this week.
The coming seven days mark National HIV Testing Week (November 22-29) and the team at the Sexual Health Hub in Truro are keen to raise awareness of the importance of getting tested.
Providing they have been diagnosed early, people receiving a HIV diagnosis today can expect to enjoy a normal life expectancy with little disruption to their lives, except for having to take daily tablets.
Kathryn Eccleston, consultant in GU/ HIV Medicine at the Sexual Health Hub, said: “Many people remember the HIV tombstone campaign from the 1980s and so there is a lot of fear still attached to it.
"We want people to understand that treatment has progressed significantly since then and it is no longer the grim diagnosis people think. People diagnosed with HIV can continue to live fit and healthy lives when there has been an early diagnosis. The only adjustment is that they may need to take medication daily.”
Getting tested early is important because it means the team are able to start treating the condition quickly and prevent many illnesses that are associated with late diagnosis HIV.
Those who have a late diagnosis of HIV can still go on to live healthy lives with treatment but in the undiagnosed will often have other health conditions which should alert medical professionals to look at the possibility of HIV.
"Repeated chest infections, chronic diarrhoea, weight loss, chronic skin problems, a wide range of cancers, prolonged flu like symptoms and sexually transmitted infections can all be signs of long term HIV.
One of the problems is that often both medical professionals and individuals themselves won’t think HIV applies to them.
Kathryn added: “There is a lot of focus on the traditional high risk groups – gay men and those from countries with a high number of HIV positive citizens – but the numbers of heterosexuals becoming HIV positive is rising with a significant proportion of those unaware they have the condition. People can often overlook obvious HIV warning signs because they are white, middle class and married.”
Gina Richards, Sexual Health Hub Unit Manager, said: “Around a third of HIV diagnosis are made in the Hub but a third more are via GPs and another third from other areas in the hospital. We are working closely with our colleagues on the wards promoting the need for HIV testing because the outcomes to people with HIV are so much better if we can treat them early.
“People who are diagnosed can ask why they weren’t diagnosed earlier particularly if they have been in hospital recently. Because Cornwall has a relatively low level of HIV in its population, HIV tests are not routinely offered to all in patients.
"We want to encourage people to think HIV and ask about HIV testing. If you just haven’t felt right but you don’t know what it is, get tested. In 99 per cent of cases it’s not likely to be HIV, but for that one per cent, a diagnosis can put you on the right path treatment wise.”
Around 50 per cent of people who contract HIV will experience glandular fever/ flu like symptoms in the early weeks after exposure but half will not. With problems only arising months or often years down the line, it is important to get tested early on if you think you may have been put at risk.
In fact unprotected sexual intercourse (i.e. without a condom) including oral sex, sharing a needle or from mother to child while in the womb are the only ways you can contract HIV. It is not possible to “catch” HIV from sharing a toilet, toothbrush or kissing.
In the past, problems getting insurance or a mortgage has put people off being tested but these things are now less of a problem. Companies now should only ask if a person has had a positive HIV test and rather than being a reason for a refusal, it may now mean having to pay a slightly higher premium bringing HIV in line with other long term health conditions.
The Hub offers confidential tests where patients are given a number rather than name and this information is not shared with GPs or other agencies unless the patient gives permission. A HIV test is offered to all who attend GU clinics and over 90 per cent accept the offer.
Gina said: “If you think you may need to get tested, contact the Hub. We offer completely confidential tests.”
For more information call the Hub on 01872 255044.