A NEW campaign is being launched in Wisbech next week to raise awareness of HIV and offering free testing.
Cambridge-based charity DHIVerse is behind the campaign, which is being backed locally by MP Stephen Barclay, and is particularly targeting Wisbech.
The charity’s Bob Dalzell was in Wisbech on Friday to discuss the issue with Mr Barclay and to highlight the issues behind the campaign.
Mr Dalzell, who lives in March, said Fenland is very much the forgotten land when it comes to HIV testing and he hopes the new campaign will raise awareness and encourage people to think about getting tested.
The campaign runs from September 10 until the end of January and also takes in National Sexual Health Week later in September.
Thirty years ago when HIV first came to prominence it was considered a death sentence and a government advertising campaign at the time reinforced that message with images of tombstones and dire warnings that large swathes of the population would die of the disease.
Today people with HIV have a normal life-expectancy thanks to medical innovations, but as Mr Dalzell explains to get treatment people need to be diagnosed.
“The only way to know whether or not you are HIV positive is to get tested. The sooner you are diagnosed the better your chances are of living a normal life and staying healthy. The longer you leave it before getting tested the more likely you are to die early and of course the more chance you have of passing it on to other people,” said Mr Dalzell.
The treatment is all about keeping the viral load - the rate by which the disease replicates in the blood - low and the immune system (CD count) high. Keeping the viral load low means it is harder for the disease to be transmitted. “Although someone with HIV should never have unprotected sex,” said Mr Dalzell.
Wisbech and Fenland as a whole are being targeted by the DHIVerse campaign because of the high migrant population and it is both men and women who are at risk.
“Many of the migrants are young people away from home for the first time and we all know what that can mean,” Mr Dalzell said.
“Migrants are often worried about getting tested because they fear they will be deported if they are diagnosed with the disease or they will have to pay for the treatment. But they will not be sent home and the treatment is free so it is important to get that message across,” he said.
But it is not only the young who are risk, people in their 40s and 50s are also at risk and Mr Dalzell explains: “Many people are getting divorced or coming out of long-term relationships and are being sexually active with new partners for the first time in years. They may not have to worry about pregnancy and don’t necessarily think about the risks of disease so are having unprotected sex.”
Mr Dalzell highlighted the problems people have accessing sexual health clinics and Mr Barclay promised to look into those issues, including the lack of more locally based facilities.
“Accessing treatment is not an issue, people can choose where to go for their treatment and it is free to everyone who needs it. But the problem is getting diagnosed in the first place and access to sexual health clinics. I will certainly be looking into the problems people have in this area in accessing that service,” said Mr Barclay.
“This is an important health campaign which I fully support. It will help ensure early treatment of HIV which can make a great improvement to people’s quality of life. Prejudice and misconceptions should not get in the way of recent improvements for those living with HIV and the positive treatments that have been achieved,” added Mr Barclay.
Mr Dalzell would like to see the kind of anonymous testing offered to young people for chlamydia to be available for HIV.
“Chlamydia testing is offered to young people on nights out in pubs and clubs. There is no stigma in taking a test because it is offered to everyone and there are incentives like free cinema tickets to encourage people to do it. The results are sent by text message so anonymity can be maintained and it would be great if we could have a similar system for HIV,” said Mr Dalzell.
To find out more about DHIVerse, which offers a range of services including counselling for those with HIV or to organise a free test contact 01223-508805 or email firstname.lastname@example.org