opinion

'The most important thing you can do in the fight against HIV today? Get tested'

In National HIV Testing Week, it's time for all of us to step up, writes Dr Ranj Singh.

2021-02-01

I still remember the first time I had a HIV screening. It was added on to a bunch of blood tests I had as part of a standard occupational health screening for work.

“It’s no big deal,” I said, “just tag it on.” I hadn’t come out at that time, and was in a straight, long-term relationship. I didn’t bat an eyelid, because to me it honestly felt irrelevant.

Fast-forward several years and I’d come out and was in my first, monogamous, gay relationship. Getting a test now felt different. Although my sexual behaviour (and risk level) hadn’t really changed, for a strange reason, it felt like the test carried more weight now.

For the first time, I felt a snippet of the stigma that much of the queer community feels when it comes to any sort of sexual health issue or testing – especially when it comes to HIV/Aids. That stigma still leads many to think that HIV is not their problem: it gets othered. 

Dr Ranj Singh

For us, Covid-19 isn’t the first or only pandemic we’ve been up against. Testing and tracing is nothing new for our community. Opportunistic testing for HIV is now deployed in many health settings — including my own. Even though we have been, and in many ways still are, disproportionately affected by it, HIV/Aids has never been ours alone — it affects anyone and everyone. However, the LGBT+ community have definitely spearheaded the fight against it, and everyone else should learn from that.

The U=U campaign, highlighting the importance and impact of getting HIV treated and suppressed ASAP, was founded by a gay person. The recent widespread provision of preventative PrEP — another huge achievement — has been largely led by our community, too

All these efforts have started to pay off. The most recent Public Health England report showed that new HIV diagnoses have decreased by almost 30 per cent since 2014, with the most marked drop among gay and bisexual men. There is now real hope that we could meet the government target and end transmission in the UK by 2030 — although obviously there’s still a lot of work to be done internationally.

Olly Alexander in Channe 4's It's a Sin, which charts the early years of the Aids crisis in the UK

Yet even in the UK that goal can only be reached by getting people tested. More than 100,000 people in the UK are living with HIV, but over 6,000 of them don't know. Not knowing your status means you could be passing on the virus without realising. And this message applies to the straight community just as much as anyone else.

There is an urgent need to normalise testing further, especially for previously underrepresented groups, including BAME people. To some extent, Covid has helped with this — all of us are rapidly getting used to being tested.

What’s more, there’s no time like the present. During lockdown, when our contact with others is restricted, we have the opportunity to break the chain of transmission of HIV by testing ourselves at home.

This is so easy to do – and free, too. Just go online and order a kit for yourself — the exact process depends on what’s available in your area. I’ve done it so many times that I even did a ‘Do your own HIV test at home’ tutorial on Instagram during the first lockdown. A quick finger-prick and voilà!

The responses I had from (largely straight) people were eye-opening — so many still didn’t know about it or its value. At that moment I felt proud to be visible in that space, and for the first time in a while, I didn’t feel the stigma I had before.

We must all take the initiative to look after ourselves and our community, but also to lead by example. Show others why this is important. Shout it from the bloody rooftops and let everyone else benefit from what we know. We sure as hell didn’t start the HIV/Aids pandemic, but we can show the world how to end it.

Save the day, gays. Get tested today.

You can order a free HIV postal test at freetesting.hiv or find out where to test locally via startswithme.org.uk.