Q&A with HIV Scotland
Hey! I’m Sam, your Wellbeing MP and as part of our Sexual Health and Guidance Week, I teamed up with Heather from HIV Scotland to answer your questions on all things HIV – from stigmas and stereotypes to treatment and testing!
HIV Scotland is a small local charity, made up of just 8 people that work to improve services, support people affected by and fight to prevent HIV. The charity aims to reach zero HIV transmissions by 2030! If you’d like to get involved through fundraising or donating, click here!
So Heather, what are the common stigmas around HIV?
You know yourself what immediately springs to mind when you think about HIV, and there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding how you can contract it. There is a culture around HIV which is very linked to a time when it was considered a fatal condition, but it isn’t anymore! Unfortunately, there isn’t really a lot of education on sexual health, HIV especially, and because of this, we stigmatise HIV as dirty, forgetting that it is a medical condition.
It’s also important to talk about self-stigma, which is a huge problem for people living with HIV. They don’t feel they can really talk about their status without it leading to social isolation. There is a lot of anxiety around telling people you have HIV; you worry that every relationship will be affected because of it.
Do you think living with HIV has changed over time?
Yes, absolutely! Thanks to developments in medicine, those living with HIV can live a normal life. Once upon a time, there wasn’t effective medication and medications caused drastic side effects. Where treatment started and where it is now is completely different and is only developing further!
Can you explain what U=U is?
So, U=U is a very complicated term. But the basic idea is that people with HIV have a viral load which is detected in their blood – so if you continue with treatment and maintain a viral load so low that it can’t be detected in your blood, you are unable to transmit HIV. Undetectable = Untransmittable.
What are the differences between PrEp and PEP?
PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a preventative treatment, dependent on your situation, so you can take it events based or daily. But if you are a woman, you have to take it daily. It’s not suitable for everybody, but it is very effective. If you are regularly at risk of HIV, it is a very useful tool to have. Right now, in Scotland, it is only accessible through sexual health clinics, so if you feel you are regularly at risk, it's vital to remain in contact with your local sexual health clinic.
PEP (Post-exposure prophylaxis) is a preventative treatment if you’ve been in contact with HIV, through sex or needles. This just prevents the infection from taking hold, as long as it’s taken with 72 hours. The earlier it’s taken, the more effective it is. But it is NOT a long-term solution. If you are at regular risk, its recommended to take PrEP.
Is treatment more easily accessible now?
Treatment is definitely easier to access now through sexual health clinics. The thought of going to a clinic can be uncomfortable due to different perceptions of HIV – but there are ways to make things easier like repeat prescriptions, regular checks and it is important to remember that medication now is much more effective than it has ever been.
How and where can people get tested in Edinburgh?
HIV Scotland offer a self-test that you can do at home – but if you aren’t confident doing this on your own, you can have someone do it for you. We want to make people feel as comfortable as possible, so all tests are confidential. Your local GP will also offer testing, but if you’d like a general sexual health check or an emergency test, Chalmers offers both!
Do you think it’s important for students to get tested?
Absolutely! For students, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, it’s easier to expose yourself to risks, especially when there’s alcohol involved. It’s so important to be cautious of all STIs and ensure you are being tested regularly. It’s also important to be aware of your actions and of any possible risks. And if you’re unsure about anything, get checked right away!
For heterosexual couples, is it necessary to wear a condom even if taking birth control?
This is very dependent on the situation. For all couples, it’s how much you trust your partner, whether you’re in an exclusive or open relationship. If you’re worried that your partner may have been unfaithful, then it’s important to wear condoms – not everyone can use condoms though, which is another reason why I promote PrEP. The uptake for women in Scotland is really very low, and I think it is linked to a lack of awareness, particularly when it comes to women and HIV. If you are concerned then use a condom, but if you’re long term concerned, research PrEP to have that added protection for yourself.
If students want to get involved and volunteer, does your charity offer any opportunities?
We love having volunteers! Obviously, with COVID, it’s a lot more complicated for us. We decided to protect our service users by not offering face to face interactions until January. But if students want to get involved, they can help promote us online through social media or by arranging fundraisers!
And finally, Heather, is there anything you want to say directly to students?
Please get tested and test regularly! It really takes no time at all and can make a huge difference for yourself, just being aware of the risks and protecting yourself! TEST TEST TEST.
HIV Scotland is a small charity working across the country and relies on donations from the public to continue fighting against HIV and supporting people affected by HIV. Donations are vital and always welcome so If you’d like to help, donate by clicking the link below!
As Heather said, the most important thing is to get tested regularly, either 3-4 times a year or with every new partner! If you can, always use protection until you and your partner have had a check-up. The Advice Hub (firstname.lastname@example.org) offers a free condom service through the C:Card Scheme. If you live in an EH postcode area, you can also order free condoms straight to your door through https://www.ccard.org.uk/free-condoms-by-post/.
Have fun & stay safe!