Tuesday 01-12-2015 - 01:00
Andrew Dalton is a lecturer in social sciences at the University of Sunderland and author of 'Silent Scream? The Life Histories of People Living with HIV in the North East of England'. For World AIDS Day, he tells us what students' unions can do to promote awareness of sexual health.
Your research ‘Silent Scream’ highlights a common failure to offer testing, or misdiagnosis, even in the late stages of HIV. What key measures can be taken to resolve this?
We need to engage with younger people, particularly students, to take an HIV test. Many people still believe that by taking the pill they won't become pregnant, however they often forget about HIV and other STIs. The pill will not protect against this. We also need to tackle the silence around HIV and to bring it to public debate. New transmissions are growing and there is a lack of discussion around HIV within the United Kingdom. My research has fed into a new nationwide HIV campaign called 'Live HIV Neutral', the first since 1987, to help to tackle HIV-related stigma and to get people talking about it again. However, it starts with individuals and it is vital to be tested at least once every six months as late diagnosis can cause complications. Although people do not die of AIDS as much in the UK, a late diagnosis stands a one in tenfold chance of death.
Today is World AIDS Day. What can students’ unions and universities do to promote awareness for sexual health?
Students' unions and universities urgently need to stay on board with this. HIV awareness should be throughout the year, not just for World AIDS Day, and so we should embrace a culture of sexual health testing. This is becoming all the more important since the government have cut £200 million to Public Health England with austerity cuts. It is time that we all stand up, oppose these cuts and raise awareness of sexual health all year round.
You sampled people living with HIV in the North East of England for your research. Do you believe people’s experiences of living with HIV differ depending on the region of the UK that they live in?
Yes they do differ slightly. The research was meant to give a snapshot of people living with HIV within a region of the UK but this can be replicated anywhere in the UK, as most of the findings mirror wider issues across the nation, such as differing healthcare experiences, depression and mental health, poor school teaching of sexual health, employment discrimination and HIV-related stigma. The experiences of someone living in London may be very different in terms of living with the virus as there are more support services in the capital and so they may have more awareness of HIV testing and groups, which will differ to a person living in rural Northumberland where there is more isolation. However, the broader issues found in the research as highlighted are the same all over.
Is there still a stigma amongst students and young people towards HIV and other illnesses?
There is definitely a stigma amongst students and a lack of awareness of transmission methods around HIV. Many people still believe that it is a virus which only affects gay men or people living in African nations, however this is untrue. Of the 107,000 people living with HIV in the UK, 59,000 (a majority) are heterosexual and a quarter of whom do not know that they have HIV, which is deeply disturbing. Old myths, such as believing that kissing, biting, sharing razors and toothbrushes will spread HIV are untrue and people still hold onto these ideas. HIV is a very fragile virus and it cannot live outside of the body so cannot be spread via any other means, other than unprotected sex, needle sharing and breast milk.
The National AIDS Trust run a survey every three years assessing the public's attitudes toward HIV and almost half claim that theybhave 'no sympathy toward people living with HIV who contracted it through unprotected sex,' which is 95% of all new diagnosis. We need a lot more empathy, compassion and understanding to really overcome the stigma around it.
How much have sexual health services on campuses improved in recent years and what work still needs to be done?
Sexual health has gotten better but it needs to improve. All too often sexual health messages stay within the students' union and the wider university need to work with the unions to get the message out there. We also need to pay attention to our older students and have age appropriate publicity as one in four of new infections are people aged fifty and over. I do not feel like this is currently being addressed as often sexualised messages focus on younger people.
Poor patient confidentiality is also a main concern highlighted in your work. Is this deterring students from getting themselves tested for sexually transmitted diseases?
Yes, there is evidence to suggest that people are putting their head in the sand regarding testing and that if they are living with HIV, their status will be revealed to others without their consent, which sadly is taking place. We need to recognise that living with HIV often comes with stigma and poorer mental health and revealing a person's status does not help this.
What advice would you offer anyone worried that they might have contracted HIV?
It is vital to seek support. If you have had unprotected sex within the last 72 hours, go to your local sexual health service or GUM clinic and you can be given PreP, which will kill off the HIV virus within 72 hours. It is free and readily available. If you have indeed been tested positive, make sure that you join a local support group to stop the isolation which can creep into people's lives living with HIV. The Terrance Higgins Trust website or your local MESMAC have great links to local community groups, charities and support/social groups where you can be yourself and talk about your status if you feel comfortable doing so. Living with HIV is not a death sentence and, managed well, many people live long and happy lives.