WHAT IF YOU TEST POSITIVE?
Different people will react to a new diagnosis in different ways. For most men, hearing the news can be stressful. You need to be kind to yourself, and get the support you need from friends, family or the organisations in place to help people adjust to living with HIV.
A positive diagnosis is going to take time to sink in, but you will be OK and will likely lead a pretty normal, healthy life. HIV is no longer a death sentence. And testing positive doesn’t mean you’ll develop AIDS. Most gay men with HIV are living full lives and enjoying good health – and you can too.
Considering your treatment options is important. Discuss them with your doctor as soon as possible. Research shows early treatment generally improves your chances of maintaining good health. Early treatment can also reduce your viral load to undetectable levels earlier, so the risks of transmitting the virus to others will be much, much lower.
Know your status. Consider treatment. Why it’s important
Some gay men don’t get tested for HIV until they develop symptoms, sometimes severe symptoms, and this can make treatment more difficult. If you test positive, at some point you will need to take antiretroviral treatments to manage your HIV and help maintain a healthy immune system. It’s a decision you’ll make in consultation with your doctor.
Keep this in mind: the longer a person remains unaware of their HIV status and not on treatment, the less likely it is that they will be able to maximise the benefit of HIV medications as increasing evidence suggests that people who start treatment early have better health outcomes.
The sooner you know, the sooner you can look at your options
If a test reveals you’re HIV positive, you’ve got time to consider your options. You’ll be able to find out what services are available, find advice and support from health care professionals, find services you can trust, and be able to plan for your future.
Plus, if you know you have HIV, you can take steps to ensure HIV isn’t passed on to your sexual partners, by ensuring you practice safe sex. Going onto treatment will deliver important health benefits and also means you are much less likely to pass on HIV to your partners. You will also be able to tell previous sexual partners that they may have been at risk of infection and suggest an HIV test.
See your doctor first. Make informed decisions.
Your first port of call should be an HIV-experienced, communicative doctor who will ask for a detailed medical history and provide you with information about HIV. You’ll also have a range of blood tests including viral load tests which determine how quickly HIV is reproducing in your system, and if your immune system is being compromised.
Once you’ve got this info, you’ll be in a better position to consider available treatments and when to start.
Write down any questions you may want to ask before you go. Here is a list that might get you started:
1. How long do you think I will stay healthy?
2. What should I change in my day to day life to stay healthy/improve my health?
3. Does it matter if I smoke?
4. Will alcohol or other recreational drugs have any effect on my HIV?
5. How physically active can I be?
6. Should I start antiretroviral medication – even if I feel well?
7. Will there be side effects from medication?
8. What happens if I miss a dose?
9. Are there other medications or non-traditional therapies I should be using?
10. How do I keep track of any physical developments related to my HIV?
11. What are my T-cells (or CD4 cells) and should they be monitored?
12. How do I recognise complications or opportunistic infections?
13. What can I do to prevent them?
14. I’m feeling very anxious/depressed. What can I do?
15. What can I do to avoid transmitting HIV?
Recent improvements in treatments
You may have heard that HIV treatments can be a hassle to take and that side effects are bad. Historically, that was the experience of many people but it’s much less the case these days. New treatments are far more effective against HIV, far better tolerated and are less likely to produce significant side effects. Some people report side effects including headaches, nausea, diarrhoea and fatigue when commencing treatment but for many, these only persist for a few days or weeks until their body becomes used to the medication.
Perhaps you’re put off by the thought of signing up for complex treatment combinations requiring many pills to be taken at very specific times. Don’t worry. People starting modern treatments usually take one or a few tablets, once or twice each day. These great advances mean more people with HIV are on treatment and, by all reports, they’re living healthy and happy lives.
For more information:
The Million Dollar Question: When to treat?
If you’re diagnosed with HIV, it’s important to consider starting treatment as soon as possible. The latest US HIV clinical guidelines, which are broadly followed in Australia, recommend treating everyone at a CD4 count of 500 or below. (CD4 cells are white blood cells that are important in the body’s immune response. HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells, undermining the body’s immune system.) The guidelines also suggest that treatment ‘be considered’ for everyone diagnosed with HIV regardless of CD4 count. Why? Well, we know that untreated HIV can cause a variety of health problems over time. We also know that generally, untreated HIV is much more easily transmitted to sexual partners when viral load is higher. Treatment reduces viral load (usually to undetectable levels) which helps reduce the chance of transmission and helps stop the spread of HIV in our community.
We also know that untreated HIV may have detrimental effects on the body right from the start. Early treatment may prevent this early damage, and reduce your risk of developing a number of other health conditions including cancer, cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease and neurologic (nerve and brain) complications. In fact, people who start treatment earlier will probably enjoy a normal life expectancy.
In Australia, experts have different opinions about exactly when people should start treatment so it’s important to talk to your doctor because starting treatment at the right time can dramatically increase your quality of life and your lifespan.
For more information:
3 FACTS ABOUT BEING DIAGNOSED POSITIVE
Fact: You can keep having hot sex
A positive diagnosis doesn’t mean the end of your sex life. Most gay men with HIV have relationships and active and fulfilling sex lives – both with HIV-negative and HIV-positive men.
Fact: You’ll be able to monitor your health
Most people who test positive will see a doctor every 3 months for a few blood tests, including CD4 count, and to monitor their viral load. This will indicate how well you’re doing and allow your doctor to check on your progress.
Fact: You’ll get all the information and support you need
If you do test positive, your treating doctor and other support organisations will be there for you through each step of the process. Some gay men need lots of support, some don’t.
AIDS councils and organisations for people living with HIV have counselling services, workshops and other support groups for gay men living with HIV. They can help you talk through treatment options and make a decision that’s right for you.
FOR A FULL LIST OF HIV SUPPORT AGENCIES:
Check out the AIDS councils and organisations for people living with HIV in each state and territory around the country.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON HIV ADVOCACY, TESTING AND TREATMENTS:
AFAO is the peak non-government organisation representing Australia’s community-based response to HIV/AIDS. AFAO’s work includes education, policy, advocacy and international projects.
National Association of People Living With HIV Australia (NAPWHA)
NAPWHA is the national peak organisation representing people living with HIV/AIDS in Australia. Through leadership in advocacy, policy, education and prevention, NAPWHA strives to minimise the adverse personal and social effects of HIV/AIDS.