Roughly 100,000 people live with HIV in the UK, with 6,000 new infections occurring every year.
In ‘The Truth About HIV’, which airs on BBC One on 25 May, Dr Chris van Tulleken from University College London explores the virus’ origins, ‘miracle’ treatments, as well as what is being done to curb its spread.
It’s safe to say that perceptions around HIV have improved slightly since 30 years ago, when a controversial public health campaign brought the virus to the forefront of conversation.
Recalling the campaign, Sir Elton John explained that stigma was rife and some people were too ashamed to even leave their homes.
Nowadays there’s still some way to go until attitudes surrounding HIV and AIDS shift fully. However with more education and awareness, things can change.
Here are nine learnings from the documentary...
What is HIV?
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, attacks a person’s immune system and weakens their ability to fight infection and disease.
It is most commonly contracted by having unprotected sex, however it can also be passed on by sharing infected needles.
Additionally, there’s a possibility that HIV can be passed on from a mother to her child during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.
What’s the difference between HIV and AIDS?
AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection, when the body cannot fight life-threatening infections any longer.
It’s crucial for people with HIV to get diagnosed earlier, so they can be offered effective treatment before the virus progresses to this stage.
What are the symptoms of HIV?
According to the NHS, most people infected with the virus experience a flu-like illness between two and six weeks after infection.
They may suffer with a fever, sore throat or rash on their body. Other symptoms include: tiredness, joint pain, muscle pain and swollen glands.
After the flu-like illness has passed (it usually takes a few weeks) patients may then live symptomless for years. In fact, some people can live without them for 10 years or more, Dr van Tulleken explains.
Can people live with HIV and not know?
In the show, Dr van Tulleken meets a woman called Lizzie Jordan whose partner was unaware he had HIV. He experienced what he believed was ‘man flu’ and died within a week.
It later transpired that he had an AIDS-related illness and had also passed the virus on to his partner. Luckily their young son tested negative for the illness.
Lizzie now visits schools, educating teens about HIV in a bid to raise awareness of the virus and emphasise the fact you can’t necessarily tell you have it unless you’re tested. She also blogs about living with the virus here.
Is there a cure for HIV?
There is still no cure for HIV, however in the show scientists say “there’s a real possibility” they could develop one.
There are treatments, such as antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), which enable most people to live a long and healthy life with the virus.
How is HIV tested?
You can get tested for HIV at a sexual health clinic or GP surgery.
Alternatively, you can order a HIV self test which is delivered to your home. You take a pinprick of blood and wait for the lines to appear: two means positive, one means negative.
In other cases, you can take a saliva sample with a swab.
Self-testing kits became legal in the UK in April 2014. It is important to check the CE mark before purchasing a kit, according to advice from the Terrence Higgins Trust.
How is it treated?
Antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) mean HIV doesn’t have to be a death sentence. People can take two tablets a day to keep the virus at bay, giving them the chance to live a relatively normal life.
ARVs work by blocking the enzymes that HIV uses to infect immune cells.
“This stops the virus from multiplying any further and brings HIV levels in the blood down to almost zero,” explains Dr Chris van Tulleken.
Can it be prevented?
A course of drugs called PrEP can be taken by people at very high risk for HIV to reduce their chances of contracting the virus.
Daily PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90% and by more than 70% for those who inject drugs, according to an information page on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite trial results proving successful (with the drug “significantly lowering the risk of becoming HIV positive and without major side effects”) it is not available on the NHS.
That said, NHS England announced in December 2016 that it would fund a trial of PrEP with at least 10,000 participants over the next three years, according to the Terrence Higgins Trust.
In the meantime, PrEP is available privately from some clinics.
How was the virus introduced to humans?
Scientists believe the virus was transferred to humans in central Africa, where people butcher chimpanzees for meat. (It is thought the virus was transmitted to a human through the animal’s blood.)
They said it is very unlikely that it originated from a human having sex with a primate.
‘The Truth About HIV’ airs at 9pm on BBC One on 25 May.