Suffolk County Council’s public health team is calling on people to understand the risks involved with contracting HIV, and to remember that the condition can affect everyone, regardless of age, sexuality, gender or nationality.
According to a report published by Public Health England last year, over 98,000 people were estimated to be living with HIV in the UK by the end of 2012, and approximately one in five of these were undiagnosed and unaware of the condition.
In 2012, 330 people were receiving care for HIV in Suffolk. For the same year, the number of new diagnoses among heterosexuals was highest in London (1,020), followed by the Midlands and East of England regions with 590 diagnoses.
Today’s warning coincides with a high profile Emmerdale storyline, in which the Val Pollard character is diagnosed with HIV following a holiday fling. Val’s story illustrates the emerging trend of new and late HIV diagnoses among middle-aged heterosexuals in Suffolk linked to potentially risky behaviour.
The most common way of contracting HIV is through unprotected sexual intercourse.
However many might not think it could happen to them, or are unaware of the risks of contracting a sexually transmitted disease or HIV from their previous or current sexual partners.
Councillor Alan Murray, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member for health and adult care, said: “Over a period of several years, we have seen many myths and stigmas emerge about HIV and the different ways in which it can be contracted.
“It is not something that is limited to one or more groups, but can be a potential risk to everyone.
“Although advances in medicine now mean that HIV is treatable, it can severely limit the quality of people’s life. Crucially, early diagnosis can make a very big difference. That’s why we’re urging people to get checked for the virus as early as possible if they have any cause for concern, and to make responsible choices by using contraception with any new partners.”
Regular testing for HIV is essential to make sure you know your HIV status.
David Graham, acting service manager for Terrence Higgins Trust in Suffolk, said: “HIV can affect anyone in this country, so it’s vital that people make themselves aware of the risks. Over recent years, we have seen more and more people being diagnosed with HIV later in life.
“Many of these are diagnosed at a point when the virus has already started to damage their immune system.
“If you have had unprotected sex with a new or casual partner, take a test.
“It takes minutes to get a result, and if you are positive, it’s the single most effective way to protect your health and the health of your loved ones.”
Dr Sarah Edwards, consultant in sexual health at Cambridgeshire Community Services said: “We are seeing a number of new HIV diagnoses in people who are apparently at low risk, but who have had sexual partners from elsewhere, both within and outside the UK, where risks are higher than in Suffolk.
“In light of this it is worth considering an HIV test for anyone with unexplained health issues, regardless of risk, as it useful to rule out infection, and if positive it can be treated with as little as one tablet daily.
“Long term health problems due to HIV can be prevented, avoiding further complications if the diagnosis is made at a later stage.”
Anyone living in Suffolk can access free and confidential rapid HIV testing services at Terrence Higgins Trust’s walk-in clinic in Ipswich on Mondays from 6pm to 8pm without any need to make a prior appointment.
People who would like to make an appointment to take a test at another time, or who would like to find out about further opportunities to test in other parts of Suffolk, can contact Terrence Higgins Trust by calling 01473 393101 or by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suffolk Sexual Health also offers a free, confidential service providing contraception, sexual health advice, testing and treatment. All treatment is free of charge. Visit www.suffolksexualhealth.com or call 0300 123 3650.