Breaking down the barriers to HIV testing

HIV testing is for everyone - not just the gay community.
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HIV testing is for everyone - not just the gay community.

May 2015 is the inaugural National HIV Testing Month. The New Zealand AIDS Foundation is using this campaign to encourage New Zealanders to get tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted Infections, as well as to raise awareness of the risk factors.

Since the first outbreak in 1981, the reality of being infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) has changed markedly. It is no longer a "death sentence", with many successful treatments available that can prevent HIV leading to Aids, the advanced form of the disease.

It is also no longer considered to be an infection confined to the gay population. In fact, in 2011 there were 34 million people around the world living with HIV, the majority of whom are in heterosexual relationships.

In New Zealand, HIV is important but relatively uncommon - 180 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in 2013, half of whom were infected in New Zealand. In New Zealand, the most common way to get infected with HIV is via unprotected sexual intercourse, i.e. sex without a condom.

HIV is a virus that is transmitted from person to person via certain body fluids – largely semen and blood. Once HIV is in the bloodstream, it starts to attack a person's immune system, killing off healthy immune system cells and reducing their ability to fight other infections. In New Zealand, HIV is transmitted in the following ways:

* Unprotected sex – although anal sex amongst gay or bisexual men is the commonest mode of transmission in New Zealand at the moment (with around 80% of our cases falling into this group), there is an increasing risk amongst heterosexual immigrant populations from high risk areas such as Africa and Asia.

* Direct contact with blood – e.g. sharing needles during drug injecting.

* Mother-to-baby transmission – this risk is low, especially as HIV testing is now a routine part of antenatal screening for the mother.

This month's campaign is especially focussed on encouraging bisexual and gay men to get tested. So why are these groups more at risk than the rest of the population?

* It's much easier to get HIV infection from anal sex – it is scientifically proven that you are 18 times more likely to get HIV from anal sex than from vaginal sex.

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* You are more likely to have sex with someone who is HIV positive if you are gay or bisexual – 1 in 15 gay and bi men in New Zealand are HIV positive, so if you are having sex with other males, especially if you have more than one partner, your risk is much higher than people in heterosexual relationships. Wearing a condom will protect you.

Many people, straight, bi and gay, find the idea of getting tested daunting.  The foundation is working really hard at reducing the barriers to HIV testing, and creating a supportive accessible environment. You can now have what's called "rapid testing" – a free test for HIV that takes under 20 minutes to provide you with a really accurate result.

In the major centres the foundation provides this service at its clinics, and in smaller locations the testing is provided via other outlets. You can book a test by calling 0800 802 437, or visit www.nzaf.org.nz to book online. 

The foundation recommends a "warrant of fitness" test every 6 months if you are a gay male or bisexual having unprotected sex with more than one partner; every 12 months if you are in heterosexual relationships. Finding out your status is really important. If you do carry the HIV virus, the sooner you know about it, the sooner you can not only access effective treatment but also reduce your risk of passing it on to someone else.

Cathy Stephenson is a GP and medical forensic examiner. 

 - Stuff

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