An Early Diagnosis: Part One
Jacob* discovered he was HIV positive while living in Australia in 2013 and has since met a long-term partner and moved back to New Zealand. In part one of our series, he describes how he felt when he was diagnosed and the impact of his testing, medication and having an undetectable viral load.
I found out I was HIV positive in 2013. I was single at that time and living in Australia, so I was very fortunate that I was able to start treatment immediately and so, within a few weeks of being diagnosed, I had an undetectable viral load.
This was really important to me. The final results from the PARTNER study hadn’t come out, but the interim results had already created an understanding within the HIV sector that having an undetectable viral load was going to drastically reduce the risk of onward transmission. I was testing every three months, so I’m really clear on the moment I contracted HIV and therefore I was confident that I didn’t then put other people at risk.
"I guess everyone has their own story and there’s obviously no judgement from me around other people’s journeys, but it was important to me that I was testing every three months - because I wasn’t always using condoms and I knew the risks."
Once I was diagnosed positive, it became really important to me that I achieved an undetectable viral load; that I had an open conversation with whoever I was hooking up with; and that I was really caring for other people’s experiences. I know they have to take responsibility for their own sexual health, but their experience of hooking up with me really did matter to me.
Living with HIV and an undetectable viral load now is 100% different to living with HIV, say, 10 years ago. I feel incredibly confident that because of my undetectable viral load, I won’t give HIV to my partner or anyone else - regardless of whether or not we use a condom, or whether that person is on PrEP – for example, my partner isn’t on PrEP. So I feel I can have a really healthy and full sex life and that makes a massive difference to the way I live with HIV.
Just taking one pill a day and not having any side effects, and feeling healthy in my body and my sexuality is completely different to the experiences of those who were living with HIV prior to these medicines.
When I went on to the medication in 2013 the first thing that they told me was that the medication has developed to the stage where its toxicity is really negligible, and I would most likely have the same life expectancy as if I wasn’t positive. In actual fact, they said it might even be longer because I’d be getting checks all the time to make sure there’s nothing wrong with me – and if there was anything wrong they maybe wouldn’t have found out it about if I wasn’t HIV positive! So when it comes to my own health, I was told I’d live a totally normal life.
Then the second thing I was told was that if I achieved an undetectable viral load, I could have a totally normal sex life and, if I was to settle down with someone, then being positive shouldn’t interfere with that too much, if at all.
That messaging was really important because it was still a shock and there was still a lot of stigma around society about HIV - and I still went through quite a lot of mental anguish as I came to terms with being positive. But I certainly didn’t have to go through the same mental anguish as those who were diagnosed when the medication hadn’t advanced.
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*Jacob's name has been changed for the purposes of this article.