Not everyone with HIV can infect others, a fact most people are unaware of, says a young man who has tested positive for the virus. In the wake of fake news about HIV transmission which was shared by a Maltese MP, he tells Ramona Depares that the country is in urgent need of basic education to remove the stigma.
Malta lags far behind its European counterparts when it comes to educational campaigns about HIV, and the brunt is being borne by patients who are often at the receiving end of unjustified stigma, a young man who was diagnosed with HIV two years ago told this newspaper.
The man was reacting to recent reports on social media warning the public to beware of “HIV infected” fruit. The HIV virus can only be transmitted through specific body fluids that do not include saliva and tears.
“Unfortunately, there has been no nationwide educational campaign by the authorities to educate people about the realities of HIV and the ways it can be transmitted. This is one of the biggest reasons why HIV-positive people are treated as pariahs by many, as the majority actually believe that you can get the virus even through minimal contact like hugging,” Adrian (not his real name) said.
Moreover, Malta has failed to publicise a crucial medical breakthrough that would help considerably towards removing the stigma from many sufferers: in patients where the virus has become undetectable, it is not possible for them to transmit it to someone else.
“In other words, not everyone who is HIV positive can transmit it to someone else. When the presence of the virus falls below a certain threshold over six months, it is impossible to transmit it. Thankfully, this is the case for me – I have responded well enough to the medication that I cannot infect anyone else,” Adrian explains.
The US Centre for Disease Control currently defines undetectable as being when the presence of the virus is “less than 200 copies/ml”. The breakthrough, made official in 2016, was followed by major educational campaigns across Europe, using the tagline ‘Undetectable Equals Untransmittable’ – also referred to as U = U.
But Adrian laments that the Maltese government has, so far, failed to follow suit. This approach, he argues, is one of the main reasons why many Maltese remain clueless when it comes to safe interaction with HIV positive people. It is also why so many patients find themselves on the margins of society, afraid to interact with people for fear of the stigma raring its head.
The majority actually believe you can get the virus even through minimal contact like hugging
“When I was diagnosed HIV positive, it changed my life overnight. I was lucky enough to have a very strong support network of close friends and family, who coped with the news fantastically. But even so, there were many days when suicidal thoughts took over. I felt like damaged goods. If I did not have such a strong support system, I would not be here today. Not everyone is lucky to have that. Proper education would go a long way towards reducing these feelings of alienation,” Adrian says.
The young man describes how there were days when he would abruptly stop what he was doing and burst into tears, staying in the foetal position for hours on end. Other days, he would simply “freak out”.
“Coming to terms with the news is a roller coaster of emotions, to put it mildly. You feel as though your body is not your own anymore, as though it has been taken over by something without your permission. It takes a long while to start accepting yourself again.
“Think how much worse people who spread unfounded myths – such as the idea that you can get HIV from a piece of fruit – make it for those who are suffering.”
Adrian’s case is one of the rarer ones, in that he always used protection during sexual encounters. Medically, he had always been considered to be part of a low-risk group.
For a time after his diagnosis, he says, he was not sure he wanted to be alive, let alone go out and meet people. “How could I date someone and risk infecting them, too?” he tells me earnestly.
Since then Adrian has gone through all the steps of acceptance and coping, and leads a relatively normal life, the only glitches being the side-effects of the medication that occasionally manifest.
“I take my medication regularly and, thankfully, the virus is undetectable in me.”
Meantime, his one hope is not only to see a fully-blown educational campaign in order to minimise stigma and ease the pain of those who live with HIV, but to also have access to newer and more efficient medication, an area where Malta also lags behind.
“I am currently taking six pills a day, three every 12 hours. I have spoken to others who are in the same situation but who are living abroad – they take one pill a day, with barely any side effects. The medication we have in Malta wreaks havoc in your body, and keeping to a work routine can be tricky,” he explains.
He confesses that he has been tempted to do like others, and order the more efficient medication online, but he has misgivings about how safe this would be.
“I really hope the government does something about it. We find so much money for so many things. This medication would improve the quality of life of a lot of people,” he concludes.
“Until this happens, the least that government can do is ensure proper education. I am not ‘the person who has HIV’. I am a person, fullstop.”