opinion

This is why everyone should get tested for HIV regularly

The dial has shifted on attitudes towards HIV but we need to keep challenging misinformation, writes Greg Owen.

2019-11-15

When I was single, I would have tested at least every six months, sometimes every three months if I had been busy.

Generally, I was in and out of relationships so I didn’t have that much of a change of partners.

I was in a seven-year relationship which I thought was monogamous – which it wasn’t on his part. I probably should have been tested more often which I wasn’t. So I tested very rarely over those seven years.

Then when I got out of that relationship, I was doing lots of chemsex and I was a sex worker at the time.

When my life wasn’t chaotic I would test regularly at least every six months and more if I needed it. But there was about a year when I was quite chaotic and  I had been on PEP twice that year too. My testing was often but sporadic rather than regular.

And then one of my very good friends offered me some PrEP so I went for an HIV test the following day. I had tested negative the year before. So only a few months had passed so I was fully expecting a negative result.

Six weeks beforehand I had been with a (sex work) client and been high for three days.

I was high on crystal meth and I was very paranoid the police were chasing me. I knew I could hide in a cubicle in Dean Street Express so I went there. I must have been in there for about 45 minutes, rocking back and forward. I did my self-swabs but I couldn’t face going downstairs to speak to the nurse for my blood work, so I left.

When I went back to Dean Street for my HIV test, they said I had chlamydia from the previous visit. I went downstairs because they aim to treat you straight away so I queue jumped and I remember thinking I’d leave the clinic never having to worry about HIV again.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The nurse asked me what result I was expecting. I said to him that I had taken risks but was 99% certain it was going to be HIV negative. I sat there waiting to get the go-ahead so I could start PrEP – I had even planned to pick it up at the weekend. He was busy typing on a computer and the two red dots came up. That was the day I was diagnosed with HIV.

The very strange thing is that before my diagnoses I was very clued up about HIV.

During 2013 I always wore a condom, 2014 was a little different, mainly because my mental health and emotional state were shattered. Back in 2014, no one was on PrEP here. Late 2014 and into 2015 I knew what “undetectable” meant, so I would happily sleep with someone who was HIV positive and undetectable even before U=U was widely known. People living with HIV on medical treatment with an undetectable viral load cannot pass the virus on.

And even since my diagnosis four years ago the dial has really shifted in terms of attitudes towards HIV and sexual health among gay men in particular. U=U campaigns have helped contribute to that. 

Young gay men now who I see, I speak to and have sex with are talking about their sex lives in a new and refreshing way. Some of the shame, guilt and fear of death has gone, but it will take a long time to be flushed out and exorcised from our collective consciousness. They are now talking about it in a way that celebrates their choices and doesn’t stigmatise.

That’s one of the key messages in this year’s National HIV Testing Week, that having an HIV test should be something to celebrate and it should be an empowering experience. The week encourages people to test for HIV, particularly those from the groups most affected by HIV, which includes gay and bisexual men.

Now we know if you are diagnosed early and start treatment you can live a full and healthy life the same as someone who isn’t living with HIV. I can’t pass on HIV because I’m undetectable. But new stats from Public Health England show 7% of people living with HIV are unaware of their status. That’s about 7000 people. We can do better.

That’s why as a community, we need to keep challenging outdated views about HIV. The conversations I now hear about HIV have accelerated way beyond what I thought could have ever happened. That can only be a good thing, but we can’t stop now.

It’s important for us to all play our part in raising awareness about getting tested.

So if you do one thing this week, I would encourage you to take control of your sexual health and get tested.

This week is National HIV Testing Week in England, 16-22 November 2019.

To find out where to test near you or order a free self-sampling test where you can test for HIV at home visit startswithme.org.uk. You can also test at your local clinic or talk to your GP about testing.