Sheffield: New mum urges HIV testing amid case rise

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Becky, from Sheffield, had rapid treatment for her HIV and has since given birth to a healthy baby girl
By Larissa Tairo
BBC News

A woman who discovered she had HIV after a routine health check is backing calls for more people to get tested.

Becky, 37, from Sheffield, South Yorkshire, was diagnosed and treated shortly after transmission, with her HIV now undetectable.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said while the number of people taking a test had increased, it was still below pre-pandemic levels.

It said there was “an urgent need” to improve the uptake of HIV testing.

According to the latest available statistics, the overall number of HIV diagnoses in England rose by 6% from 2,313 in 2021 to 2,444 in 2022.

The rise was caused by an increase in diagnoses among heterosexual people, a report showed.

It saw a 14% rise within London and an 11% rise outside the capital.

HIV Testing Week, which runs until Sunday, is a campaign by the Terrence Higgins Trust charity on behalf of the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities.

Throughout the week, people can order a free HIV self-test which provides a result in 15 minutes.

Becky told the BBC she began online dating after going through a divorce in 2015 and later discovered she had contracted HIV.

“I didn’t even know HIV was an option,” she said.

“People like to ask me if I was risky or unlucky – everyone with HIV is unlucky,” she said.

She said a diagnosis so soon after she caught the virus enabled her to get the treatment she needed, with Becky recently giving birth to a healthy baby girl.

“HIV campaigns were never targeted at me,” she said.

“I knew nothing about it other than what I learned at school in the ’90s, which is that it kills you.”

Becky works for Leeds Skyline, a branch of the Black Health Agency for Equality charity which provides HIV support services across Leeds, Wakefield, Manchester and Liverpool.

She said many people still lack basic knowledge about the virus.

“You can show someone all the science behind HIV and how being undetectable works,” she said.

“There is a deep ingrained stigma people have and they don’t even know it.”

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus – the immunodeficiency is the weakening of the immune system by the virus
If untreated it can lead to late-stage HIV or Aids, the name for a collection of illnesses caused by the virus

Medication helping those with HIV to live long, healthy lives has been available for decades
Modern medication reduces the viral load to undetectable levels, meaning someone can’t pass on HIV and their health is protected

Sources: Terrence Higgins Trust and NHS

Akhona, a 44-year-old Leeds Skyline volunteer, was diagnosed in 2016 and said she still faced discrimination despite her HIV being undetectable.

Her former housemates asked her to eat from different tableware and use a different fridge, she recalled.

“Even back then I understood they lacked knowledge about HIV,” she said.

“But it is very depressing”.

While dating, she said a date was scared to talk to her in fear of catching HIV after she disclosed her status.

She said experiences like these had made her feel isolated.

“The only time I deal with HIV is when I take my medication and when other people remind me that I have it,” she said.

Akhona said she faced discrimination after her HIV diagnosis

Akhona decided to become an HIV awareness advocate and regularly holds talks aiming to help end HIV discrimination.

Aydin Djemal, Black Health Agency for Equality’s chief executive officer, said a lot of people they see “lack adequate knowledge” of HIV.

“People do not tend to understand HIV generally, or how HIV will affect them specifically, and that’s what we would like to start chipping away at,” he said.

The most recent government figures show the number of people having an HIV test in sexual health services rose by 10% in 2022, but it was still 15% lower than in 2019.

HIV testing levels among heterosexual men and women remained lower than those observed in 2019, the figures show.

Mr Djemal said he would like to see more heterosexual men engaging with their services.

“There could be 101 reasons why people do not test, what we see is that men tend to wait longer to seek help,” he said.

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