We know that people who are tested for HIV, and are diagnosed with the infection, have a good chance of being able to live normal lives as long as they get the right treatment. However, just getting people tested can be a struggle. In some communities, even talking about HIV may be considered taboo and we find those who suspect they might have the infection are very reluctant to do anything about it. As someone who was born in Uganda, and lived in various African countries before moving back to Uganda to study medicine at University, I know that people of African descent do sometimes fall through the HIV testing net. This is because of a range of cultural issues, including stigma surrounding the disease widely known as ‘slim’ and simple misunderstanding even now in 2016 with good treatment there are still people who think that HIV is a death sentence. Black women who have become infected can be picked up during pregnancy and childbirth, where HIV testing is now standard, but Black men – their partners – may never present to a clinician until symptoms are quite pronounced. Moves to include HIV tests for patients attending A&E, medical assessments units and GP surgeries registering new patients are helping to widen the scope of testing.
In HIV testing week, there are important ways that Terrence Higgins Trust is reaching out to all the people who may not always be willing or able to take an HIV test. As well as taking tests to football stadiums, where men tend to predominate, teams are also going into churches and other places of worship. We have done a lot of work with religious leaders. For a lot of African communities, the church plays a very important role. When religious leaders support testing, their congregation are far more likely to embrace it and be tested themselves. It also helps to reduce the stigma surrounding the disease which is linked to sexual contact. Some women I have seen in clinics cannot understand how they got HIV, particularly as they are ‘not promiscuous’ or explain away the infection because of ‘needlestick’ in the community – someone sticking them accidentally with an infected needle.
There has been a lot of progress but we still need to do more when HIV prevalence is running at two per thousand people in some boroughs of London. Testing is the first defence we have and we need to ensure that the message about the importance of testing reaches everyone.