The original name that was given to HIV was Gay-related Immune Deficiency (GRID) and was based on the assumption that only gay men could contract it. This name did not stick, but the myth did.
Although HIV does disproportionately affect men who have sex with men – according to the Terrence Higgins Trust, “of the 4,363 people diagnosed with HIV in the UK in 2017, 53 per cent were gay or bisexual men” – anyone is susceptible to the virus. HIV is present in most bodily fluids (not including sweat, urine, or saliva) – this means that it is most commonly transmitted through unprotected sex, although it can also be passed on through shared needles or breastfeeding.
The Terrence Higgins Trust notes that, “As a result of combination prevention among gay and bisexual men, 2017 saw a fall of 17 per cent in HIV diagnoses in that demographic in one year and 31 per cent compared to 2015.” One such charity that specialises in this preventative care is SX, a project belonging to Waverly Care, the Scottish charity focusing on HIV and Hepatitis C. SX specifically focuses on the wellbeing of men who have sex with men, and has partnered with the University of Edinburgh to provide a free CheckPoint drop-in service, providing people of all genders and sexualities with the opportunity to get tested for HIV.
I decided to go along to one of their drop-ins myself last Friday, to understand the procedure better and learn more about the kind of services SX offers. The entire process, from beginning to end, took less than five minutes – in fact, the most time-consuming aspect was filling in the paperwork at the start. After that, the SX worker explained the procedure to me: they’d prick my finger with a lancet to get the blood for testing, transfer the blood into a small pipette, drip the blood onto a porous membrane, and ascertain my HIV status from that.
The other main way to test for HIV involves drawing blood from a vein using a normal syringe (venipuncture). The obvious advantage of the method offered by SX is that, as well as being quicker, it’s less intimidating for people who are afraid of needles. I’m pretty squeamish, and I barely noticed the lancet pricking me at all. However, as the Waverly Care worker pointed out, the venipuncture method detects HIV as early as six weeks from the suspected infection date – the lancet method only works after three months.
I asked the worker what the procedure would be if the patient’s status were revealed to be positive. He explained that Waverly Care would immediately organise a visit to their own clinic on 3 Mansfield Place, to confirm the result. Volunteers would then support the patient through every step of the process, from the first meeting to post-diagnosis treatment. The SX worker emphasised that the lancet method was a tool primarily designed for people who might want to make HIV testing part of their routine – for instance, if they were part of the high-risk groups mentioned above.
Even if you aren’t part of an at-risk demographic, it is never a bad idea to get checked. The sooner HIV is caught, the more effective it can be treated. Of the people living with HIV who have been diagnosed, 98 per cent are on HIV treatment – that’s nine million people worldwide. SX is coming back to the University of Edinburgh on the 22 May from 11:30 until 13:30, and the 24 May from 17:15 until 19:15.
Image: Alex Proimos via flickr