HIV: overcoming fear
An estimated 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV. But research shows that many of them – around 13% – don’t know. According to the CDC, almost 40% of new HIV infections are transmitted by people who do not know they have the virus.
There are several reasons that may prevent people from getting tested for HIV. Fear of disease, stigma and discrimination or negative judgment if a test reveals they have HIV are some of the barriers.
But taking a test is the first step to knowing your status. This is important information that helps you take control of your health and prevent viral infection that can cause AIDS.
For Seattle’s Kelly Gluckman, HIV was the last thing on her mind when she stopped using condoms with her partner without first being tested for HIV.
“I knew it wasn’t the smartest decision,” says Gluckman, now in her 30s.
She was 23 at the time, and although she knew about being tested for HIV through comprehensive sex education at school, she says as a “straight white woman,” she never got around to it. view at risk of contracting HIV. But after about 6 months of unprotected sex, Gluckman and her partner decided to get tested to rule out HIV as a precaution.
“We both tested positive on October 25, 2010,” Gluckman said. “We were both pretty devastated.”
“The immediate thought was, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die. I faced mortality, because ‘HIV turns into AIDS and then you die.’ That’s exactly what was instilled in me from what I saw in the media and what I learned in school,” Gluckman says.
Looking back, Gluckman says denial played a role in her and her partner’s hesitation to get tested for HIV.
“We were talking about going to get tested and then we just didn’t,” she says.
Many people still tend to have a “scary view” of HIV, says David Pantalone, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He thinks it may have something to do with outdated HIV images and narratives from the 80s.
“I don’t think there’s a revised public conception of what it’s like to have HIV,” Pantalone says. “The reason is that what it looks like to have HIV now is basically the same as it looks to not have HIV. Data on life expectancy between HIV-positive and HIV-negative people is not really so different.
Although HIV is incurable, the treatment, antiretroviral therapy (ART), is very effective. It reduces the amount of HIV virus in your body or your viral load. If you take the medicine according to your doctor’s instructions, the viral load may become so low that it becomes undetectable in an HIV test. When this happens, there is little or no chance of developing symptoms of the infection or spreading it to others. Usually you can control HIV with medication in just under 6 months.
Gluckman saw positive results soon after starting his medication.
“My viral load went undetectable within 2 months,” says Gluckman, adding that she had no side effects.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to live, I can be healthy with this stuff, with this virus.'”
The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV at least once in their lifetime. Usually you can do this during your annual checkup. If you haven’t had the test, talk to your doctor.
If you are more at risk, you should be tested more often: every 3 or 6 months to be sure. But Pantalone says the lack of testing also stems from people confusing that the high risk of illness “fits into an identity” when it comes to a virus spread by common human behavior, such as having sexual relations.
“If you’ve had sex with someone without a condom, then you need an HIV test. Even if it’s low risk, you should still do it periodically because you never know,” Pantalone says.
You are at higher risk of contracting HIV if you can answer “yes” to any of the following questions, according to the CDC:
- Are you a man who has had sex with another man?
- Have you had sex – anal or vaginal – with an HIV-positive person?
- Have you had more than one sexual partner since your last HIV test?
- Have you shared needles, injection drugs or other drug injection equipment with others?
- Have you had sex in exchange for drugs or money?
- Have you been diagnosed or treated for other sexually transmitted diseases?
- Have you been diagnosed or treated for hepatitis or tuberculosis (TB)?
- Have you had sex with someone whose sexual history you are unaware of?
If any of these apply to you, you may be eligible for an annual HIV test even if your last test was negative.
If you are pregnant, ask your doctor to test you for HIV. If you have HIV when you become pregnant, tell your doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor can give you the right medicines to help you and your baby stay healthy.
It is also good practice to get tested for HIV and know your status before having sex with a new partner for the first time. It’s always a good idea to ask about their sexual and drug history before having sex. If you know you have HIV, tell them your status. If you are unsure of your or your partner’s HIV status, be sure to wear a condom. This can help protect your health or prevent others from getting the infection.
If you think you have been exposed to HIV or are having what you think are symptoms, tell your doctor as soon as possible. Getting an HIV test or talking to your doctor about HIV can feel both embarrassing and stressful. But arriving prepared can help you cope better.
Take a list of questions with you to get the most reliable information. This can help your doctor come up with a treatment plan if you have HIV.
Even if you find out you don’t have HIV, now is a good time to ask questions and learn more about how you can help prevent HIV infection. You may have heard of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV, which can help you avoid getting HIV. You can ask questions such as:
- How can I protect myself from HIV?
- How often should I get tested?
- Does my sexual partner also need a test?
- Do you offer advice on HIV prevention or recommend a place that does?
If you don’t want to go alone, ask a friend or family member to go with you. If you are diagnosed with HIV, your doctor can direct you to many resources to get you the help and treatment you need to get the infection under control.
If you’re trying to persuade a close friend or loved one to get tested for HIV, Pantalone says it can be helpful to get them thinking about how knowing their HIV status or getting tested can help. to prevent the spread to others they know. .
Stigma and lack of proper care can exist even among health care providers. But don’t let that stop you from getting tested or receiving preventative care or treatment.
If you have a place to go for health care and want to start getting tested for HIV, talk to your health care provider. “And if that provider isn’t supportive, then switch,” Pantalone says. “Going to an organization that specifically serves the HIV community is a great way to be welcomed with open arms and without judgement.”
If you test positive for HIV, Gluckman says it’s important to remember that you are more than that.
“You’re worthy of respect, you’re worthy of love, you’re worthy of health, you’re worthy of good sex,” Gluckman says. “HIV is just the virus.”