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One pill a day and living to 100: the modern reality of life with HIV

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 03, 2013

  • HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was, with developments in drugs meaning that those with the disease can often live just as long as anyone else. Above: Yusef Azad, top, from the National Aids Trust, and Malcolm Bryant, a solicitor whose HIV doesn't get in the way

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Until she decided to reveal it in a local television interview, nobody apart from her boyfriend, 24-year-old daughter and a few friends and relatives knew Jo Josh was HIV-positive.

There was no reason for them to suspect. Jo's a "bouncy blonde, very smiley", an active member of her community and, to all intents and purposes, the picture of health.

She's also the first to admit she doesn't fit the usual HIV stereotypes: "You know, I'm a white female, middle class, heterosexual."

Yet, in terms of her HIV, there's nothing remarkable about Jo.

During the mid-1980s, HIV/Aids, which had only been officially discovered in humans a few years earlier, became the subject of hard-hitting awareness campaigns.

Little was understood about the virus, and it seemed to be spreading at alarming rates, particularly among homosexual men and drug addicts. Scare stories spread equally fast; rumours that you could catch Aids from toilet seats and sharing a cup with an infected person weren't just gossip, they were reported in the media as truths.

The campaigns served their purpose – for a period until the late 80s, diagnosis rates dropped. But they also created another legacy. While the landscape of HIV has changed dramatically since then, public awareness and attitudes haven't kept up.

"If you were diagnosed 30 years ago, you prepared to die," says Jo, from Surrey. "Then, in the 1990s, treatments came in, but you still prepared to die because of all the side-effects, and people were taking 30-odd pills a day.

"Now it's one pill a day for the majority of people and they'll probably live for as long as anybody else. It's not that big a deal!"

It did feel like a big deal, though, when Jo was diagnosed in 2008. It came as a "total shock" and she didn't know much about it. "I only remember saying, 'I can't die, my daughter needs me'," she recalls. "And then a male nurse telling me, 'You could live to be 100'."

She was tested after being hospitalised with what she thought was severe flu. She was actually having a bad reaction to the sero-conversion stage – the phase after initial infection which can cause flu-like symptoms and is often so mild that it doesn't prompt a visit to the doctor. But HIV is now something that exists in the background for Jo. She admits that she "went potty with stress" before "going public", imagining people would start avoiding her.

On the whole, however, the response was very supportive – though Jo had a job convincing people she "was actually fine".

She understands why – Jo herself had no idea how much treatment had developed before it became part of her life. She's now determined to dispel some of the myths, and was happy to share her input when the National Aids Trust (NAT) put together their #FactUp campaign, highlighting the reality of living with HIV in the UK in 2013.

NAT's director of policy and campaigns, Yusef Azad, notes that as well as keeping people well, medication also prevents them being infectious.

"When you start treatment, the amount of virus in your body's lowered," he explains. "It takes a few months, but once the viral load is deemed stable, the risk of passing on the virus is virtually non-existent."

Since the introduction of AntiRetroviral Therapy in the 1990s, drugs have improved and side-effects are largely manageable.

But scare stories somehow still manage to steal the spotlight, and the UK still has a way to go in tackling the stigma and discrimination.

The stigma isn't just something that affects those who have been diagnosed, either – it can often put people off being tested, as they're so afraid that being told they have HIV will shatter their lives.

Malcolm Bryant, 46, proves this isn't the case. Despite being diagnosed with the virus in 1999, he's in good health, and heads a large team as a senior solicitor.

"My HIV is almost irrelevant to my colleagues," he says. "I take one tablet a day, and I go for a check-up every six months. I can't remember the last time I took time off work sick."

With more positive awareness and the likes of Jo and Malcolm speaking out, it is hoped the spread of HIV will fall and stigmas will be eradicated.

"I have a vision that everybody with HIV will be able to stand up and say it," says Jo. "And not be as terrified as I was when I was diagnosed."

For more information visit www.hivaware.org.uk

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