HIV and women – here’s how to stay protected
HIV now infects more straight people than gay or bisexual men. Here’s everything you need to know about the virus: how to stay protected, where to get free tests, and what treatment and support is available here in the North East.
While attitudes have changed a lot in the last 40 years since the AIDS crisis ravaged 1980s Britain, today there is still an assumption that HIV is a disease that only affects men in the LGBTQ+ community.
This isn’t the case.
In fact, recent statistics show that 49% of new HIV diagnoses in England are among straight people – with almost an even split between men and women – compared with 45% for gay and bisexual men. Yep, women in England get HIV, too.
This is the first time in a decade that new HIV diagnoses among heterosexuals are higher. But, thankfully, it doesn’t mean that there has been a huge spike in the HIV transmission among straight people. What is does demonstrate is a sharp, sustained drop in HIV diagnoses among gay and bisexual men, with a 71% fall since 2014. What these statistics show is just what is possible.
But to best protect all of us against HIV relies on early and accurate diagnoses. Studies have shown that straight people were far more likely to be diagnosed with HIV late, meaning the damage to their immune systems had already begun and transmission rates were higher. More than half (51%) of women and 55% of heterosexual men diagnosed with HIV in 2020 were diagnosed at a late stage. This compares to just 29% of gay and bisexual men.
So, we’ve reached out to our friends at SHINE (Sexual Health in Newcastle), to get the lowdown on HIV – the symptoms, treatment and support available – and to help spread the word that we all need to be vigilant against this virus.
WHAT IS HIV?
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. A healthy immune system provides a natural defence against disease and infection. HIV infects special cells – called CD4 cells – which are found in our blood and are responsible for fighting infection. After becoming infected, the CD4 cells are destroyed by HIV.
Although the body will try to produce more CD4 cells, their numbers will eventually go down and the immune system will stop working. This leaves a person who is infected with HIV with a high risk of developing a serious infection or disease, such as cancer, because the immune system is no longer able to prevent it happening.
HOW IS HIV SPREAD?
HIV is spread through the exchange of bodily fluids. This most commonly happens during sex – including oral, vaginal and anal sex. HIV can also be passed on through sharing needles.
U = U
U = U stands for Undetectable = Untransmittable.
What a lot of us still don’t realise is that if a person with HIV is on treatment, they are virally supressed – which means they can’t pass the virus on.
If a person adheres to HIV medication, the virus in the blood reduces to undetectable levels. Scientists can now say with complete confidence that people living with HIV and on effective treatment can no longer pass on HIV to others, even when sex is unprotected.
IS THERE A CURE FOR HIV?
There is no cure for HIV and no vaccine to stop you from becoming infected. However, since the 1990s, treatments have been developed that help most people with HIV to stay well and live relatively normal lives. The sooner you know you have HIV, the better, as treatment can keep you healthy.
Special medicines that are used in what is known as Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) have been really successful in slowing down HIV and helping people to live longer. Researchers are confident that improvements in therapy will mean that a person with HIV will live as long as somebody who does not.
WHAT IS AIDS?
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) describes the later stages of HIV, when the immune system has stopped working and the person develops a life-threatening condition, such as pneumonia. The term ‘AIDS’ was first used by doctors when the exact nature of the HIV virus was not fully understood. It’s not used as much now because it’s too general to describe the many different conditions that can affect somebody with HIV. Specialists now prefer to use the terms ‘advanced’ or ‘late-stage’ HIV infection.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF HIV?
The first stage of HIV is known as primary HIV infection. In people who are infected with HIV, 60% will develop associated symptoms, usually two to six weeks after they are first infected with HIV.
Symptoms of primary HIV infection may include:
- Sore throat
- Joint pain
- Muscle pain
- Swollen glands (lymph nodes)
- A blotchy rash on the chest
These early symptoms are often very mild, so it’s easy to mistake them for something else, like a cold or glandular fever.
After this, HIV will often not cause any other symptoms for many years. This is known as asymptomatic HIV infection. During this time, the virus is still reproducing and damaging your immune system. Left untreated, HIV will lower the number of CD4 cells in your body to a dangerously low level and your immune system will stop working. On average, it takes 10 years for the virus to damage the immune system in this way.
A damaged immune system will result in you developing a serious infection. Possible symptoms of a serious infection caused by a damaged immune system include:
- Feeling tired all the time
- Night sweats
- Unexplained weight loss
- Diarrhoea that won’t go away
- Blurred vision
- White spots on your tongue or mouth
- Dry cough
- Shortness of breath
- A fever of above 37C (100F) that lasts a number of weeks
- Swollen glands that last for more than three months
AIDS-related illnesses, such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and some cancers, may appear. Many of these, though serious, can be treated to some extent and some are likely to improve if you start treatment and your CD4 cell levels increase.
MONITORING FOR HIV
If you’re diagnosed with HIV, you will be offered an appointment to a HIV or Sexual Health Service. You will also be offered counselling.
You will need to have regular blood tests to check how the HIV is affecting your body. As part of the blood testing, two main things are checked: your CD4 count – which is the number of CD4 cells in your blood – and your viral load, which is the amount of HIV in your blood.
These tests allow the staff at the HIV service to see how far the disease has progressed and whether you might develop an infection.
TREATMENT FOR HIV
If the level of CD4 cells fall below a certain level (currently 350), you will be advised to start medication called HAART. This holds back the growth process of the HIV and allows CD4 levels to increase.
Once HAART is started, it should not be stopped without discussing it with your doctor, because the disease can then come back quickly and the medication may not work again.
POST-EXPOSURE HIV TREATMENT
PEP – Post Exposure Prophylaxis is available from sexual health clinics and most Accident & Emergency centres across the North East.
PEP could stop someone from catching HIV, as long as the treatment is started within 72 hours (3 days) of unsafe sex or condom breakage occurring.
PEP involves taking anti-HIV drugs for 4 weeks and can have side effects. PEP is also not guaranteed to work.
If you would like more information, contact SHINE on 0191 277 2050 or find out more here
FREE HIV TESTS AT SHINE
SHINE offer free HIV tests, where you’ll receive your results within just 15 minutes.
To apply for a HIV test, please see their HIV Test page.
WHO ARE SHINE
SHINE (Sexual Health In Newcastle) is a free community health project for all women, trans and non-binary people, and intersex people who identify that the service is appropriate for them.
A specialist service that provides confidential holistic sexual health and wellbeing advice, HIV prevention and support for all, you can access SHINE if you feel it’s appropriate for you – regardless of who you have sex with or if you’re not having sex at all. SHINE support Newcastle residents who are 16 years old and over. They work with professional interpreters and can provide this for 1:1 sessions and groups.
Originally set up as the HIV Prevention Project in the late ‘90s, SHINE have many years of experience working to raise awareness about HIV and supporting women who are either at risk of becoming HIV positive or who are HIV positive.
Whether you’re a HIV positive woman, have a partner who is HIV positive, or you are looking for information about HIV, SHINE can offer you information and advice.
SHINE, Newcastle City Council, Third Floor, Civic Centre, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 8QH