National HIV Testing Week: Why you should get tested

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Part of the National HIV Testing Week campaign urging people to get tested

This week (22-30 November) is National HIV Testing Week 2014, meaning that members of the public – particularly those from groups considered particularly vulnerable to HIV – are being encouraged to get tested for HIV as part of a mass drive to lower the percentage of the population living with the virus.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus which attacks the body's immune. If left untreated, people with HIV can develop AIDS.

Quick facts about HIV:

  • A quarter of people with HIV in the UK don't know they are infected

  • One in 20 gay men in the UK are living with HIV

  • For someone diagnosed with HIV today at 35 (the average age of diagnosis in the UK) life expectancy is over 72

  • The most common treatment today for someone diagnosed with HIV early is one or two pills a day

  • Lots of people with HIV work and their HIV does not affect their working life

  • HIV is not transmitted through normal everyday contact at work, school or in social situations

  • HIV is not transmitted by biting, scratching or spitting

  • With the right medical help, 99% of HIV positive women give birth to healthy babies without passing on HIV

  • HIV affects all ages – one in four people living with HIV in the UK are over 50 and last year one in ten people diagnosed were aged 16 to 24

The latest figures show that HIV infections in Britain are currently at an all-time high, with almost 110,000 people in the UK now living with the condition.

What is very concerning is that one quarter of those with HIV are unaware that they have the condition, meaning that they could easily be passing the virus onto others, through unprotected sex, without even knowing it.

There is also key progress being made in the diagnosis and treatment of people with HIV in the UK. Overall, more people are being diagnosed earlier meaning that treatment is more effective; the proportion of people diagnosed with a late stage of HIV infection fell from 57 per cent in 2004 to 42 per cent in 2013. Dr Valerie Delpech, head of PHE's national HIV surveillance, said, “We can’t overstate the importance of testing for HIV to ensure an early diagnosis.”

The two communities currently most at risk of HIV in the UK are gay and bisexual men and black Africans.

Around 6% of gay and bisexual men are now living with the UK, rising to 13% in London. The latest public health figures estimate that over 7,000 gay men have an HIV infection that remains undiagnosed.

Black Africans living in the UK are disproportionately affected by HIV. Whilst Black African people make up just 1.8% of the UK population, they account for 36% of all people living with HIV. To compare, on average 2.8 people per 1000 aged from 15 to 59 have HIV in the UK, but among black Africans of the same age the rate is significantly higher at 56 people per 1000.

Last year 1,240 black Africans living in the UK were newly diagnosed with HIV.

In a statement, Public Health England (PHE) said: "While the large majority of black Africans do not have the HIV infection, the report also draws attention to the fact that one-third of the 40,000 black African heterosexual men and women living with HIV in the UK do not know they have HIV."

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Perhaps more so than in other communities, stigmatisation surrounding HIV is thought to prevent many black Africans from either getting tested, or then seeking help if they test positive for HIV, for fear of being isolated.

The taboo surrounding HIV in many African cultural and faith groups is something which needs to be addressed. Of the 1,522 black Africans who were newly diagnosed with HIV in 2012, 66% of men and 61% of women were diagnosed at a late stage of infection, meaning that the treatment they received was less effective than had they been diagnosed sooner.

A London-based charity, ActionPlus Foundation, has opened an HIV testing clinic in a black church in New Cross to help combat the disease among African people in the UK.

ActionPlus founder, Pentecostal minister Rev Fred Annin, said: "It shouldn’t be taboo to discuss it in churches. It’s a medical condition and people need medical help. Prayer cannot bring our health back when we ignore medicine."

Black Caribbean people living in the UK are also at a much higher risk than their white counterparts of being diagnosed with HIV.

Last year there were 2,449 black Caribbean people in the UK living with a diagnosed HIV and accessing HIV care and black Caribbeans accounted for 3% (181) of new diagnoses in the UK despite this group constituting only 1% of the UK population.

Since black people and gay people are the two groups among which HIV is most prevalent in the UK, it makes sense that black gay men are especially vulnerable to the virus.

Campaigner D’Relle Wickham, who works at the Naz Project,which provides sexual health and HIV services for the capital’s Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities, is helping raise awareness of HIV among black gay and bisexual men.

Wickham, 27, who has lost several friends to HIV, has highlighted the stigmatisation of being homosexual within the black community as a major obstacle in the battle to lower HIV rates among gay and bisexual black men.

Wickham explained, “I’ve lost a lot of friends and I’d like to play a small part in decreasing the prevalence of HIV in our community. […] I believe my friends that were diagnosed with HIV weren’t out about their status so they weren’t getting treated and because they weren’t getting treated they passed away.”

Wickham, who is gay himself, has advised other gay, black men (and bisexuals) to get tested and have regular HIV screenings, stressing that they can do so without revealing their sexuality to anyone. “I would never say to anyone disclose your status if you don’t feel comfortable. I would say make sure you are going to your doctors regularly – that’s not the same thing as disclosing your status,” said the campaigner.

The general advice, for everyone, to lower your chances of getting HIV and help reduce the spread of HIV is as follows:

  • Always use a condom

  • Avoid sharing needles and other injecting equipment

  • When seeing a new partner both get tested before you have sex

  • Limit the number of different partners you have and try to avoid overlapping sexual intercourse with multiple partners

  • Have an HIV test if you are having sex with new or casual partners

  • Go for a regular HIV screen (even if you are in a long-term relationship)

To find out more information about HIV or National HIV Testing Week please visit: