Yeah it will come as shock to some people in Northern Ireland, but yes there are people living with HIV here in Northern Ireland.
You can't tell who they are by looking at them.
You are not at risk from every day contact with them.
The HIV Support Centre in Belfast says that every week there are two people newly diagnosed with HIV. That is two more people who will be living with HIV in their bodies, two more sets of family and friends that will be living with someone they know very well having HIV.
Of course it is up to the individual in question as to whether s/he lets their family or friends know their status. There is still a stigma attached to HIV, which is almost as much of the ignorance from the 80s instead of what is known now about the disease. In fact it is possible to be in a full relationship with someone living with HIV and practice safer sex and to remain negative yourself*.
That stigma is something that is hard to overcome. It only will be broken down if more people living with HIV are courageous enough to let others know. Showing others that they can live a perfectly normal live.
My friend Michael is a trustee of The HIV Support Centre and he is adamant that the stigma of HIV is best lifted when people are aware that people living with HIV are all around them. Until recently this was even an issue with The HIV Support Centre itself, referring to itself merely as 'The Centre'; the centre of what, one might ask. I recently witnessed him helping lift that stigma one person at a time.
He was talking to a friend he had known for some time, the conversation got round to HIV and his work as a trustee. Standing there listening I had an inkling where that conversation was going, especially once the friend seemed shocked that there people living with HIV in Northern Ireland, the friend was not someone you'd expect to be ignorant of such facts. Michael, eventually asked the question, "Do you know anyone living with HIV?". The friend replied "No". A hand was proffered with the words, "Hello, I'm Michael, I'm living with HIV." It was a brave step even to a friend of some standing, and I'm glad to report he shook that hand and carried on asking more questions, over to the side I was fighting back the tear ducts**.
There is also the stigma of attending a GUM clinic. Some people think that everyone in there is carrying some STI if not HIV. But not every car that you see in a garage needs work doing, some are just being serviced and getting looked over ahead of an MOT, getting tested regularly is just like that. Far better to know what your status is, negative or otherwise at regular intervals that to find out too late that there is something wrong. Late diagnoses means that sometimes the medications may not be effective for the treatment of HIV.
Scarily 1 in 4 people living with HIV are as yet undiagnosed. Scarily of that set 39% are diagnosed so late that they need to start HIV treatment immediately, and 30% were diagnosed so late that there was a real risk of developing a potentially fatal illness. When there are apparently to 1 in 20 of the UK wide gay male population that are living with HIV that can lead to nightmares. Therefore the rule of thumb is treat every encounter the same, be safe and respect your own body. If someone refuses you because you want safer sex, don't give in to peer pressure.
The message this year is ACT AWARE.
Are you aware of your HIV status?
If you're not but are sleeping around whether with people of the same sex or the opposite, may I advise you to go and get tested now and regularly and be aware.
If you don't believe how important that can be I'll advise to wait until my next blog post.
* Of course there is no such thing as 100% safe sex, but if you love someone you decide for yourself what you want to do providing you are in full knowledge of the facts.
** Yeah I tend to well up quite a lot.