HIV: overcoming fear
An estimated 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV. But research shows that many of them – about 13% – don’t know. According to the CDC, nearly 40% of new HIV infections are spread by people who don’t know they are infected.
There are several reasons that prevent people from taking an HIV test. Fear of disease, stigma, and being discriminated against or judged negatively if tested positive for HIV are among the barriers.
But taking the test is the first step to knowing your condition. This is important information to help you stay healthy and prevent contracting the virus that causes AIDS.
HIV was the last thing on Seattle’s Kelly Gluckman’s mind when she stopped using condoms with her partner without getting tested for HIV first.
“I knew it wasn’t the smartest decision,” says Gluckman, now in his 30s.
She was 23 at the time, and despite learning about HIV testing through comprehensive sex education at school, she says that as a “white, heterosexual woman,” she never saw herself as at risk for HIV. But after about 6 months of unprotected sex, Gluckman and his partner decided to get tested for HIV as a precaution.
“2010. on October 25, we both tested positive,” says Gluckman. “We were both pretty devastated.”
The immediate thought was, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die.’ I faced mortality because “HIV turns into AIDS and then you die.” It’s what I saw in the media and what I learned in school,” Gluckman says.
In retrospect, Gluckman says denial played a role in his and his partner’s hesitation to get tested for HIV.
“We’d talk about going and investigate, and then we just wouldn’t,” he says.
Many people still have a “scary view” of HIV, says David Pantalone, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. He believes this may have something to do with outdated images and narratives about HIV from the 1980s.
“I don’t think there’s a revised public perception of what it’s like to have HIV,” says Pantalone. “The reason is that what appears to be HIV-infected is basically the same as not being HIV-infected. The life expectancy of HIV-positive and HIV-negative people is not really different.
While there is no cure for HIV, the treatment, antiretroviral therapy (ART), is highly effective. It reduces the amount of HIV virus in the body, or the viral load. If you take the medicine exactly as your doctor tells you, your viral load can drop enough to be undetectable in an HIV test. When this happens, there is little or no chance of the infection developing symptoms or spreading it to others. You can usually control HIV infection with medicines in as little as 6 months.
Gluckman saw positive results soon after he started taking his medication.
“My viral load was undetectable within 2 months,” Gluckman says, adding that he had no side effects.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to live, I’m going to be healthy with this thing, this virus.’
The CDC recommends that people ages 13 to 64 get tested for HIV at least once in their lifetime. You can usually do this during your annual health check. If you have not yet had the test, ask your doctor.
If you are at higher risk, you will need to be tested more often: every 3 or 6 months to make sure. But Pantalone said the lack of testing also stems from people’s mistaking that high risk of disease “fits into an identity” when it comes to a virus that is spread through ordinary human behavior, such as sex.
“If you’ve had sex without a condom with any person, you need an HIV test. Even if it’s low risk, you should do it regularly because you never know,” says Pantalone.
According to the CDC, your risk of HIV is higher if you answer yes to any of the following questions:
- Are you a man who has had sex with another man?
- Have you ever had sex – anal or vaginal – with someone who has HIV?
- Have you had more sex partners since your last HIV test?
- Have you shared needles, injection drugs, or other drug injection equipment with others?
- Have you ever had sex for drugs or money?
- Have you been diagnosed with or treated for another sexually transmitted disease?
- Have you been diagnosed with or treated for hepatitis or tuberculosis (TB)?
- Have you ever had sex with someone whose sexual history you don’t know about?
If any of these apply to you, you can still get an annual HIV test, even if your last test was negative.
If you are pregnant, ask your doctor for an HIV test. If you are infected with HIV when you become pregnant, tell your doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor can give you the right medicines to help you and your baby stay healthy.
It is also good practice to get tested for HIV and know your status before having sex with a new partner for the first time. It’s always a good idea to ask about their sexual and drug use history before having sex. If you know you have HIV, tell them your status. If you are not sure whether you or your partner have HIV status, be sure to use a condom. This can help protect your health or prevent others from getting the infection.
If you think you have been exposed to HIV or if you think you have symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible. Getting an HIV test or talking to your doctor about HIV can be embarrassing and stressful. But coming prepared can help you cope better.
Bring a list of questions with you so you can get the most reliable information. This can help your doctor create a treatment plan if you have HIV.
Even if you find out you don’t have HIV, it’s time to ask questions and learn more about how you can help prevent HIV. You may have heard of HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which can help prevent HIV infection. You can ask questions like:
- How can I protect myself against HIV?
- How often should I test?
- Does my sex partner also need a test?
- Do you offer HIV prevention advice or recommend a place that does it?
If you don’t want to go alone, ask a friend or family member to go with you for support. If you are diagnosed with HIV, your doctor can point you to many resources to help you get the help and treatment you need to control your infection.
If you’re trying to get a close friend or loved one to get tested for HIV, Pantalone says it can help to get them thinking about how knowing their HIV status or getting tested can help prevent the infection to people they know. .
Stigma and lack of appropriate care can occur even among health care providers. But that shouldn’t stop you from getting tested or getting preventive care or treatment.
If there is a place you go for health care and you want to be tested for HIV, let your health care provider know. “And if that provider doesn’t support you, switch,” says Pantalone. “Going to an organization that specifically serves the HIV community is a great way to meet with open arms and without judgment.”
If you test positive for HIV, Gluckman says it’s important to remember that you’re more than that.
“You are worthy of respect, worthy of love, worthy of health, worthy of good sex,” says Gluckman. “HIV is just the virus.”