Shifting attitudes about HIV testing

Despite incredible medical advances in our treatment of HIV since the 1980s, we know that myths, fear and stigma continue to perpetuate the epidemic in the UK. People still avoid HIV testing for fear of the result, or simply because they don’t think HIV is an issue anymore. This causes alarming rates of late diagnosis and means around 1 in 6 people with HIV don’t know they have it.

Around 1 in 6 people with HIV don’t know they have it.

On the other hand, those who get a positive result and onto effective treatment can live a long and healthy life, and cannot pass on HIV to others.

This week, we learned that four out of ten people newly diagnosed with HIV in the UK last year were diagnosed ‘late’ once the virus has already started to damage the immune system.  This is unacceptable in an era when we have all the tools we need to end HIV transmission. People who are diagnosed late are more likely to become unwell, and more likely to pass on the virus to others.

Heterosexual men were the most likely to be diagnosed late (55%), followed by black African men and women (53%) and heterosexual women (49%).

Meanwhile rates of late diagnosis among gay and bisexual men were lower than average at 30%. However this community remains at high risk of HIV, representing well over half all new HIV diagnoses in 2015.

We clearly need a culture shift in attitudes to HIV testing across all communities in the UK. That’s why National HIV Testing Week (19 – 25 November), is needed now more than ever.

We already have a powerful tool that could help stop the epidemic in its tracks: the HIV test. People who test regularly and know their status can get onto effective treatment, which stops the virus from being transmitted.

Too many people are missing out on HIV tests

But too many people are missing out on HIV tests – perhaps due to fear of the result, or the assumption that they’re not at risk.

These statistics remind us that HIV is an issue for everyone. As National HIV Testing Week approaches, we want regular testing to become the norm in every community.

We’ll be going out and about into churches, football matches, supermarkets, high streets, bars and clubs to test people in everyday situations. These days you can get your result back in minutes, not weeks – as Prince Harry famously demonstrated this summer.

But if people want to take a test in a clinic, or even in their own home, there are options for all of those too. If we rely on people proactively visiting a sexual health clinic alone, we will never reach all those who do not know their HIV status.

Almost immediately after Prince Harry’s live HIV test, Terrence Higgins Trust saw a five-fold increase in demand for self-test kits.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a big deal to see someone high profile taking an HIV test – why shouldn’t a Prince take a test like everyone else?

The ‘Prince Harry effect’ was undeniable

The ‘Prince Harry effect was undeniable as soon as one high profile individual lifted the lid on how easy it is to take an HIV test,  people’s fears temporarily evaporated and they came forward to take the test.

It showed that testing isn’t a daunting prospect and should be as routine as going to the dentist or getting your blood pressure checked. HIV testing is free, fast, confidential and has never been easier.

We hope that National HIV Testing Week is another chance to demystify the process of getting tested. The sooner we can remove the fear and stigma, the quicker we can stop HIV.

Cary James

Head of Health Promotion, Terrence Higgins Trust

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