I’d heard of AIDS. I’m too young to have seen the Grim Reaper TV adverts but my grandad told me that “there was a lot of AIDS fear back in the 80s.” HIV today is drastically different from what is back then. It’s no longer a death sentence.
Today in NSW, all people living with HIV have access to medications which allow for a normal lifespan. As a 22-year-old queer woman I hadn’t really given much thought about HIV until I started working for Positive Life NSW, an organisation that represents people living with and affected by HIV.
I’ve quickly learnt that HIV is a risk for anyone who’s sexually active or anyone who injects drugs. HIV is transmitted through unprotected anal and vaginal sex, breast milk, and blood to blood contact. Regardless of whether you’re gay, straight or anything in-between or who and how you fuck, anyone who has sex can get a sexually transmitted infection (STI) including HIV. That includes me and you!
In Australia, HIV notifications have declined in Australian-born gay men. Yet in 2017 one in every four people diagnosed with HIV contracted HIV through heterosexual sex. HIV doesn’t discriminate who is at risk. It doesn’t just affect men who have sex with men. Since joining the HIV sector, I’ve met many women, men, trans and gender diverse people living with HIV who identify across a range of sexualities.
What concerns me is that anyone who is not a gay man, like me, are less likely to ask for a HIV test. I don’t think I’ve ever had a doctor recommend a HIV test. Yet, nearly half (48%) of all new HIV diagnoses among non-gay male people are known as ‘late presenters’ meaning they have been living with HIV for four or more years without knowing it. In that time, their immune system has been under attack and everyone they’ve had sex with was at risk of acquiring HIV.
Once they start on HIV treatment, (usually one pill a day) their viral load falls, they aren’t infectious and can’t pass HIV to anyone no matter how much sex they have. Condoms are an effective barrier to HIV. Today we also have PrEP and PEP. Like the contraceptive pill, PrEP is a daily pill that prevents HIV transmission for people that are at high risk. PEP on the other hand is a four-week treatment to stop HIV taking hold if you’ve already been exposed to it.
If you’re sexually active, think about making STI and HIV testing a regular part of your sexual health check. Regular sexual health screens don’t include HIV, so it’s something you need to specifically ask for, especially for women. As someone who enjoys sex with anyone, I now go for a full check at least every six months.
Any questions or concerns about your sexual health? Call Sexual Health Info Link (SHIL) anonymously on 1800 451 624. They can also help you find your local (free!) Sexual Health Clinic. You can also call Positive Life on (02) 9206-2177, 1800 245 677 (freecall) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.