What is ‘early diagnosis’?
HIV is a virus which can be transmitted from person to person, most commonly through unprotected penetrative sex, but sometimes, through sharing needles, or from mother to baby. If untreated, the virus can weaken your immune system so you become vulnerable to a range of infections which your body would normally be able to fight off. For some people this can happen within a year or two of being infected, for others it may take ten or more years, before they become ill. Living with the virus does not mean that you necessarily feel ill and the only way to find out whether you are infected or not is to take an ‘HIV Test’. At the moment there is no cure for HIV and the virus cannot be eliminated from the body, but there are highly effective treatments which can stop the virus from weakening your immune system and enable you to live a healthy and active life. New recommendations suggest that you can benefit from anti-HIV treatment as soon as possible after being diagnosed, and this is something you should discuss with your Doctor.
Why is it important?
The treatments work best before your immune system has been seriously weakened by HIV. In fact, two out of five people who die from HIV infection are diagnosed late. Also, the sooner you know if you have HIV, the sooner you are able to take steps to prevent passing it on to other people.
How common is HIV? How many people know that they are infected?
Although HIV is not a particularly common infection in the UK, rates of new diagnoses have risen from just over 2,000 per year in the mid-nineties to over 6,000. There are thought to be around 100,000 people living with HIV in the UK – around a quarter are not aware that they are infected.
How many people are diagnosed late?
The technical definition of ‘late diagnosis’ is that your CD4 count is less than 350 within three months of diagnosis. ‘CD4 count’ is a test which looks for the number of ‘CD4 cells’ in your blood. These cells help to co-ordinate the way your immune system works – untreated HIV infection will generally cause your CD4 count to drop, and this is a sign that your immune system is being weakened by the virus. The term ‘very late diagnosis’ means that three months after diagnosis your CD count is around 200 or less, this is usually the point at which people living with HIV become ill.
More than 40% of HIV diagnoses in 2010 were ‘late diagnoses’ as defined above.
Am I at risk? Should I be worried?
More than 97 per cent of HIV transmissions in the UK are thought to take place through unprotected penetrative sex. So if you think you have exposed yourself to a sexually transmitted infection through having unprotected sex there is a chance that you have been exposed to HIV, and it is important to have a sexual health check-up, including an HIV test. You may have heard or seen articles in the media referring to ‘high risk groups’ (such as gay men, drug users or members of BAME communities). This can be confusing and unhelpful – certain demographic groups do indeed have a high prevalence of HIV, but ‘risk’ is more properly associated with the type of activity which might expose you to HIV infection (such as unprotected penetrative sex, or injection drug use). Rather than worrying about HIV in particular, it makes sense to have a regular sexual health check-up, including an HIV test, if you are sexually active and have had unprotected sex, or are changing partners.
Where can you go for an HIV test?
Many people choose to go to a sexual health (or GUM) Clinic to have an HIV test. The test is free and completely confidential, and will not be passed on to any other part of the NHS without your permission (it will not go on your GP’s medical records). You can also have a free ‘INSTI’ finger prick test at DHIVERSE. You will get the results within about a minute of taking the test and this is also completely confidential, click here. Or, click here for a list of sexual health clinics in Cambridgeshire and surrounding areas. You can access any sexual health clinic; you do not need to go to the closest. DHIVERSE can support you both with your visit to a sexual health clinic and once you receive your results.