A recent court case has seen the first person found guilty of intentionally trying to spread HIV in the UK, and the upsetting case – by merely existing – has added to the stigmatised dialogue surrounding the disease.
Darryl Rowe, 27, was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted for deliberately attempting to infect 10 men with HIV. It is the first time anyone in the UK has been found guilty of intentionally trying to spread the virus.
Rowe, who was diagnosed with HIV in April 2015, used gay dating app Grindr to meet his victims, who he pressured into having unprotected sex as well as sabotaging condoms he later went on to use.
The devastating case has sparked new discussion about HIV in the UK.
The reality is, misconceptions surrounding HIV are rife within and outside of the queer community, because many simply do not understand the disease properly.
Tragically Rowe’s actions serve to further polarise HIV from public understanding, by giving the disease negative mainstream media attention and setting back those working diligently to de-stigmatise it.
Recently, the government opened the conversation up about HIV by encouraging people with the disease to become advocates for others with the condition.
Health minister Anne Milton said: “We need to reduce undiagnosed HIV so people can benefit from effective treatment and to prevent HIV transmission.
“The government’s modernisation of the NHS and priority for public health provides a good opportunity to improve outcomes for HIV and improve prevention.”
Rowe’s actions paint the queer community as divided, rather than a group of advocates, however it is important to remember that the particular uniqueness of this upsetting case is not representative of HIV-positive men as a whole.
The fact that this case made the news means the opposite – that cases like this are extremely rare.
People living with HIV are already highly stigmatised and we need to encourage open discussion not only within the LGBT+ community, but across the country.
Many people are unaware that HIV is no longer the death sentence that it once was in the 80s and 90s.
Unlike Rowe, most people living with HIV do not perform hateful actions, and are able to live long, healthy and happy lives.
No longer a death sentence
Thanks to the success of combination therapy (also called antiretroviral treatment or ART), the disease is now a manageable, chronic condition which can be controlled by taking a daily tablet.
Combination therapy works by reducing the amount of HIV found within the body to very low levels, so low that the virus can no longer be detected within the blood.
This means that the disease cannot damage the immune system. This usually takes around six months of treatment to achieve, however it can take slightly less or more time depending on the person.
Another benefit of this is that once the disease is undetectable within the body, it can no longer be transmitted to another person.
So even if a person without HIV had unprotected sex with someone who is HIV positive, they would not catch the disease.
Although combination therapy is extremely effective at keeping HIV at bay, it is not a cure.
If someone on combination therapy stopped taking their medication or did not take their medication properly, the level of HIV within their body would increase again and would begin to attack their immune system.
It’s important to note that although Rowe was diagnosed with HIV in 2015, he refused to begin treatment and medication. This is how he was able to pass on HIV to some of his victims.
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Most people living in the UK who have been diagnosed with HIV have undetectable viral loads in their blood thanks to treatment.
According to Public Health England, there are almost 90,000 people living with HIV in the UK, but sadly it is still a highly stigmatised disease. One third of people living with HIV in the UK have experienced discrimination.
A recent poll also discovered that 1 in 5 Brits would feel uncomfortable wearing a red ribbon on World AIDS Day.
Rowe’s victims not only have to come to terms with living with a lifelong illness, but the stigmatisation that the disease brings.
If we’re going to end that, we need to talk openly and frankly about what living with HIV today really means.
Deborah Gold, Chief Executive of NAT (National AIDS Trust) said: “People living with HIV should not be avoided, feared or discriminated against, including when it comes to sex and dating.
“Well over 100,000 people are living with HIV in the UK, and the vast majority of them cannot pass on the virus to others due to effective medication – this is something most people don’t realise, unfortunately.
“The Rowe case is the first of its kind in the UK, and is an exceptionally rare thing to encounter.
“To intentionally transmit HIV is a deplorable crime which one could only commit by avoiding one’s own crucial treatment. Our thoughts are with the victims in this case.”