‘One in five people diagnosed with HIV are heterosexual, and I’m one of them’
George* was working in the security field which involved breaking up fights, contact with blood and vomit, and even getting stabbed. George also had an active sex life, involving multiple partners and engaging in sex parties. Because of these factors, George considered himself at risk of blood-borne viruses and got regularly tested for HIV.
Seven years ago he received a positive HIV diagnosis one Friday afternoon at an inner city clinic. He was not all that shocked as he suspected he might have been at risk. “Maybe it was exposure to blood during my work, or it might have been through sex with a partner who didn’t disclose their HIV status,” he says, “I’m still not sure.”
George had a very practical approach to his diagnosis. He researched on line and found out HIV could be well managed. He didn’t worry too much, though his family was concerned. Within a couple of weeks he was linked to an experienced HIV doctor and decided to go on treatment immediately. Because he was diagnosed early, the virus had not damaged his immune system very much and therefore his prognosis was good.
UNAIDS estimates there are 25,000 Australians living with HIV. In 2016, 1 in 5 people diagnosed with HIV in Australia were heterosexual1. Forty-nine per cent of heterosexuals are diagnosed late, meaning they miss the benefits of early treatment and may unknowingly pass on HIV.
George finds general community attitudes to HIV are behind the times. “It’s ridiculous,” he says, “With other illnesses, such as diabetes, people want to reach out and support you. But with HIV they don’t want to know. I think it’s because people think they can catch HIV from me. But I have an undetectable viral load, meaning I can’t pass it on.”
Recent studies have shown when HIV is at undetectable levels for 6 months a person cannot transmit HIV through sex. The risk is now seen as negligible, or in real world terms, zero. An international campaign called “U=U, Undetectable = Untransmissable”, aims to raise awareness of this important message.
George thinks this campaign is fantastic and is keen to see it out there in mainstream community. He thinks if this message is better known, it’ll make it easier to tell people he has HIV. “I tend not tell anyone because I’ve had some bad reactions in the past.”
Despite the challenges, George maintains a down-to-earth attitude towards living with HIV. He keeps himself well informed about new advances in treatment, eats well and exercises regularly.
George feels fortunate, but would like to see more done. “We’re pretty lucky in Australia with good treatment and care for people living with HIV, but there’s still a long way to go to educate the wider community.”
*Not his real name
1Kirby Annual Surveillance Report, 2016