(The sexual health charity FPA gives straightforward information and support on sexual health, sex and relationships to everyone in the UK. FPA educates, informs and supports people through our specialist sexual health programmes and counselling service, our websites and publications, our training for professionals and our public awareness campaigns.)
HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus which weakens and damages the immune system. Although the virus can be managed through treatment, once a person has HIV, it remains in the body.
There has been enormous progress in the development of HIV testing and treatment since it first emerged as an epidemic in the later half of the 20th century. But many people in the UK don’t fully understand how the virus is transmitted or what it means to live with HIV.
Through our work on the Stigma Survey UK 2015, we know that many people living with HIV are affected by the attitudes and behaviour of other people. Worryingly, one-fifth of people surveyed said they had felt suicidal in relation to their HIV status.
Tackling stigma and prejudice around HIV in the UK is really important, especially as it can delay or prevent people from testing for HIV in the first place. Here are five surprising facts that you may not know about HIV:
1. Almost one in five people with HIV in the UK don’t know that they have it
An estimated 103,700 people are living with HIV in the UK. Of these, experts predict 18,100 people are unaware of their status. Being diagnosed late, when the virus has had more time to affect the immune system, can lead to more serious health problems. It also means you could unknowingly pass the virus on to other people during unprotected sex.
As well as protecting yourself by using condoms, it’s really important to get tested. Some people choose to get tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) on a regular basis, for example every year, to help keep an eye on their sexual health.
In some instances, people unaware they have HIV may not have realised they were at risk of transmitting the virus.
2. HIV does not only affect gay men and drug users
There are still stereotypes around HIV only affecting men who have sex with men (MSM) and people who inject drugs. Although MSM are disproportionately affected by HIV, the virus does not pick and choose between different people based on their sexual orientation. Anyone who has unprotected sex without a condom could be at risk of HIV, as well as other sexually transmitted infections.
According to Public Health England, 54,100 heterosexual people in the UK are living with HIV (with 21% unaware of their status). This means that among heterosexual people aged 15-44 in the UK, almost one in every 1,000 is estimated to have HIV. And while many people think that women are relatively unaffected by HIV, of the cases of HIV transmitted through heterosexual sex, there are more women than men living with the virus in the UK.
3. HIV can only be transmitted in very particular ways
Many myths still surround how HIV can be transmitted, with common misconceptions including that HIV can be passed on through saliva, sneezes or coughs. This is not true.
In fact only certain body fluids from a person who has HIV can transmit the virus. These are:
Pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum)
The virus, in these body fluids, has to come into contact with a mucous membrane (like inside the mouth, vagina or anus), damaged tissue, or injected directly into the bloodstream, in order for transmission to occur. Although HIV can be transmitted during pregnancy, almost all babies born to HIV positive women in the UK are negative if the mother is supported through pregnancy.
You cannot become HIV positive from hugging, kissing, sharing baths or towels, from swimming pools, toilet seats or from sharing cups, plates or cutlery. HIV cannot be transmitted from animals or insects, including mosquitoes, and it is not passed on through biting.
4. On treatment, people with HIV can live a long and healthy life
Although there is currently no cure for HIV, there are drugs known as antiretroviral treatment (ART) that can reduce the level of HIV in the blood and prevent or delay the development of late stage HIV infection. Most people with HIV benefit from these treatments and live longer and have better health than if they had not taken them. Many people using ART have what is called an ‘undetectable viral load’, which means the treatment has reduced the HIV to such a low level it is highly unlikely it would be transmitted to another person.
For anyone who wants to take an HIV test but is worried what the result may be, it’s important to remember that being diagnosed and starting treatment will have much better health outcomes than hoping it will go away by itself.
5. Medication can be used by people who are HIV negative to prevent HIV infection
You may have heard about PrEP in the news recently. PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is the name for drugs which can be taken regularly by people who are HIV negative to help prevent HIV being transmitted. Pilot schemes around the world have shown PrEP is very effective and there is currently a campaign in the UK for the drugs to be made available on the NHS for anyone who could be at risk of HIV transmission to use.
Preventing infection by using medication, as well as by promoting the use of condoms, could help significantly reduce HIV infection and transmission throughout the world.
FPA’s top tips for enjoying safer sex
Use condoms – Condoms (male and female) are the only method of contraception which can also help protect against sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Remember HIV, and other STIs, can also be transmitted through oral sex.
If you’ve taken a risk, get help straight away –If you’re worried that you have taken a risk that means you may have been exposed to HIV in the last 72 hours, you might be able to take a short course of drugs called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which can help prevent HIV infection.
Get tested – HIV testing is free on the NHS to anyone and is available at genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinics, GP practices, some contraception clinics and young people’s services, and rapid testing services (listed at www.tht.org.uk). It is also possible to take a test at home.
Further information and support
Terrence Higgins Trust - http://www.tht.org.uk/