Better to know
One of the best things about my work is how I get to do different things every day. As a doctor who also runs a business and a charity, I am quite interested in understanding why people do what they do. Whether it is about marketing a product/service, fundraising, or providing treatment options for a condition, it is important to understand what people think, as that will influence their reactions and choices. It does not matter if I think that red is the best colour ever - if people believe that red is the colour of evil, no one will buy the red dresses I am selling! It might be easier to bury my head in the sand and hope that constant advertising or ‘education’ will change their minds, which it probably could – eventually, but it will be so much better to know what their current beliefs are about the situation or product, so that I can tailor my presentation to make the most impact.
An area I have been involved in recently, as a doctor, is public health. I have been helping to organise a health event for the city, where people can learn more about diabetes, obesity and stress management, among other topics. As part of health promotion initiatives for the city, free and confidential HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) tests will be provided at the event, with signposting to local test centres (usually pharmacies) where people can get free tests afterwards, if they wish. The results are available in as little as sixty seconds after a finger-prick test. Last week, a man asked me why anyone would want to know if they were HIV-positive, and it made me want to put my thoughts together on this issue.
Without getting into the history of HIV, I would like to acknowledge, first of all, that HIV has had so much negative publicity and stigma over the years. As someone who has lived in Africa, I know how seriously stigma can affect people’s lives and choices. I remember the odd looks and comments I got years ago when people found out that I was getting married to a wonderful man - with sickle-cell! Thankfully, there are now many people who live happy lives with well-managed sickle cell disease, but the stigma still exists strongly in some communities. As with any condition, I believe it is always better to know what you have or are at risk of, and learn how best to manage it, instead of avoiding the topic or pretending it does not exist. Most of the conditions we stigmatise, including mental health problems, are ones that can happen to anyone, usually through no fault of theirs, so why do we look down on affected people, as if we are better than them or can never get it?
Having HIV is no longer the ‘death sentence’ it was once thought to be. With early diagnosis, people can now live long and normal lives. It is a shame though that more than half of HIV cases are diagnosed late, which means that the patient then has more complications and a shorter life expectancy. What is even worse is that the HIV-positive person would have probably spread the virus unintentionally to so many other people, because it is possible to have no signs or symptoms of HIV for years after contracting the virus. Sharing needles (e.g. by intravenous drug users), having unprotected sex (not using condoms) and unsafe blood transfusions are some common ways that HIV is transmitted. You do not get HIV from kissing, hugging or sharing a cup with someone who has HIV. The rates of transmission of HIV among men who have sex with women is now becoming higher than among men who have sex with men, so this is not just a topic for homosexual men. This is also not just about young people or Africans, because anyone can get HIV.
HIV can also be transmitted from mother to child, but with modern medicine, it is now possible to prevent this transmission in pregnant women, which is why knowing your HIV status is very important so that you can get the required treatment and protect your loved ones. If someone has HIV, they can now expect to live a normal lifespan, as long as they test and start treatment early, before HIV damages their immune system. For those, like me, who do not really like needles, oral swab tests are now available, which provide results in twenty minutes. You can also have a free HIV test kit posted discretely to you at home (in the UK – see link below), so that you can test yourself at home, if you prefer. Your HIV test result will not be passed on to anyone else, not even your family doctor, without your consent. Since HIV can now be managed with as little as one pill a day - free of charge, there is no reason to stay in the dark. I know my HIV status, do you?