‘HIV Is 3 Letters, Not A Sentence’: Meet The Women Who Are Making The Stigma Surrounding HIV A Thing Of The Past

To mark World AIDs Day, we spoke to fitness instructor Becky Mitchell, who was diagnosed as HIV Positive in 2012 about their experiences around the virus…

Becky Mitchell

Usually full of energy, it was only when Becky found herself feeling fluey (as well as experiencing muscular and joint pain, a general lack of energy and noticing a rash on her chest) that she wondered if something was wrong. Then, a month after going to the doctors for a sexual health screening, she received the news that she was HIV positive. 

But instead of letting fear dominate her diagnosis, Becky has been determined to approach her status with positivity. After all, her early diagnosis meant that treatment would be more effective – and despite coming up against stigma and difficult conversations, Becky has vowed never to hide away.

Hi Becky! What would you tell someone who was newly diagnosed with HIV? 
I’d tell them to ensure their health is being monitored regularly! Receiving an HIV diagnosis is devastating, but it’s a very treatable condition if it’s diagnosed and treated early. There is a lot of support online and via various organizations such as the Terrence Higgins Trust and National Aids Trust. I’d also advise them to get educated as much as possible about HIV with the assistance of their medical team. There are a lot of myths about HIV and it’s more helpeful to deal with accurate facts than fiction! 
What words of advice helped you with your diagnosis? 

The best piece of advice I had was to talk to people who were living with HIV, so I joined the Terrence Higgins Trust MyHIV forum, which answered a lot of the questions that I had. I’ve since received a lot of support online and in person. 
Has anything in your life dramatically changed since being diagnosed? 
My love of fitness helped me to come to terms with my own diagnosis in the early days and last year, I qualified as a fitness instructor. I now teach two spinning classes and two kettleball classes every week. HIV is life changing but not life limiting, and it won’t stop me from enjoying my life. I love life and always have. 
Brigette Bard 

Essex born and bred, Brigette set up BioSure in 2011 after using a pregnancy test and realizing that the potential to give members of the public the ability to diagnose and self test for a variety of conditions could be revolutionary. Driving the development for new tests for viruses such as HIV, she has a strong belief that in the near future there will be self tests for almost every ailment. 
Having noticed that a lack of information and understanding was preventing people from going to get tested for sexual infections, Bridgette has now set up Last Taboo – with the specific aim of generating national awareness of the issues surrounding sexual health, and giving people the confidence to make the best and most appropriate choices for them. 
What should someone do who believes they may have contracted HIV? 
If you think you may have been exposed to HIV it is really important that you get tested, as it is the only way you can know your status for sure. HIV treatments are really good now and although it’s not curable HIV, is certainly manageable. Anti-retroviral treatment (ART) can actually reduce the amount of virus in your blood so it becomes undetectable, making onward transmission extremely unlikely and meaning you can live a normal, healthy life. The important thing is to know your status so if you do have HIV you can start treatment as early as possible. 
And, if you think you may have been exposed to HIV within the past 72 hours, there is a course of treatment called PeP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis) which is a course of anti-retroviral tablets that you take for a month and may prevent infection altogether.
What are the testing options available to people in the UK? 
There are lots of testing options available. Your local sexual health clinic (GUM clinic) should be able to offer you HIV testing which can either be via a blood test that is sent to a laboratory or by a Point of Care test which gives you your result while you wait. There is also the option of home sampling, which involves filling a small vial with your blood sample at home and posting it off to a laboratory – you are then contacted by phone or text about 5 days later with your result. This is available for free but only to the highest risk groups. 
This year, due to a change in the law, you are also now able to self-test for HIV. There is only one CE marked test available and the technology is similar to a pregnancy test. It’s really easy, uses a fingerprick blood sample and gives your result in 15 minutes. It’s important to remember that it can take a varying amount of time from infection to detection as it takes a while to produce the antibodies. It’s called the ‘window period’ and ranges between 1 and 3 months depending on which test is used. 
What support is available to those living with HIV? 
In the UK there is lots of support available and there is more and more emphasis being put on peer support. The Terrence Higgins Trust and PositivelyUK are both really good organisations and there are plenty of local support groups. There is also a wealth of information available from the National AIDS Trust. It’s really important to remember that HIV is 3 letters, not a sentence. You can also visit our website, www.lasttaboo.co.uk, which provides more information on HIV symptoms, testing options and support networks.
Last Taboo is a new social enterprise dedicated to creating a safe environment to discuss sexual health.  For more information visit 
www.lasttaboo.co.uk

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