[Mohammed Afkhami | Contributing Writer]
Since the discovery of the causal agent of a mysterious syndrome that seemed to predominantly affect gay men in the thriving LGBT scene of 80’s Los Angeles, the world has been on an emotional rollercoaster in regards to the exact threat posed by HIV to humans.
As it spread across the world due to mainly sexual interactions that didn’t make use of a physical barrier to fluid transfer, research on drug therapies made headway. A cocktail of drugs have now been developed that allow those infected to live to have a life expectancy similar to that of the rest of the population. An early positive diagnosis is no longer the death sentence that it used to be. As long as you get tested if you are sexually active, then there is much than can be done for you with use of the highly active anti-retroviral therapy system, HAART.
In spite of all these preventative and containment strategies occasional outbreaks are still common and as I was soon to find out; there has been an increase in the incidences of infection in Hertfordshire, with Watford followed by Welwyn/Hatfield, having some of the highest cases by percentage of the population. Those stats, in addition to the presence of a likely promiscuous student body, may be part of the reason to why HertsAid have been carrying out HIV-testing drop in sessions on campus.
I caught up with Juddy Otti, the BME communities worker, who runs the drop-in sessions on campus. Juddy has also been nominated for a National Diversity Award under the Positive Role Model category. As she carried out the 20 minute HIV testing and advice sessions, I probed her on her job and its importance.
Advice & Support Centre | Mohammed Afkhami
UV: What’s the formal name of your role? Juddy: The full name is BME community worker, next week I’ll be taking on the public health lead which oversees other public health strategies, not just BME. The role right now is to create awareness about HIV in Hertfordshire and mainly to help you live longer and a more productive life and to help reduce the stigma around having HIV.
UV: Did you have any personal experiences that led you to your interest in this issue? Juddy: Well, I’m originally from Uganda and it has been highly affected by HIV. I lost many relatives to it and it was in nearly every single household and is associated with death and suffering.
UV: Is the West more optimistic? Juddy: Well there are statistics that show it pays to be optimistic. There are people living fine on medication, with new anti-retrovirals. But still, the ethnic and BME community choose to suffer in silence.
UV: There are two HIV viruses, what’s prevalent where? Juddy: HIV1 is prevalent here. HIV2 is more prevalent in the sub Saharan.
UV: Have you heard of any of the conspiracy stories about the virus? Juddy: Yes, but I don’t think it matters how it came into Africa. The bottom line is it affects a large portion of the African population. I’m interested in helping to manage it.
UV: What do you do? What problems exist for the BME community in relation to HIV in UH? Juddy: Our aim here is to foster an environment were majority of students can access a free test, thereby reducing new cases of HIV infection.
UV: So are we seeing a rise in new cases? Juddy: Hertfordshire, yes, has had a rise of people with HIV. From 2013 we’ve had 1036 cases. And those are only known cases. We believe around 200 don’t even know they’re carrying the virus. Which means that they are also probably spreading it unknowingly. So it’s a public health concern. It’s why we encourage lots of people to test.
Speaking about HIV itself, it’s one of the very few viruses that doesn’t have any physical symptoms. You may have a cold and a cough after a while. Depending on the immune system some people don’t get any signs or symptoms at all. People don’t show any symptoms for years. The HIV virus attacks your white blood cells and then uses that as a hub to attack your body. Your white blood cell count begins to free fall and the body is then unable to fight any infection. When it gets to this latter stage we call that AIDS, which is too late for you to get a full recovery. Doctors will do all other possible tests and if they’re all negative they test for HIV. The majority of people die in 2 years after a positive diagnosis at this stage. Those that live will go on to live with life changing side effects. i.e strokes and deformities. So the earlier you test the more likely you are to live a healthier life.
UV: How is this relevant for UH students? Juddy: Watford has the highest cases, followed by Welwyn Hatfield.
UV: Are you seeing any change in the number of people prepared to get themselves tested? Juddy: Yes we have seen a great increase. I specialise in BME and men who have sex with men. A lot of people who came from abroad used us as an opportunity to get this done. But now we’re seeing a massive increase in all groups of people getting tested. More people are aware of the benefits of testing. A good sign of a behaviour change, I think.
UV: And lastly what are your long term goals. Any strategies you’re pursuing to resolve current issues? Juddy: We’d like to emphasis five things to people and improve three things. The five points we like to highlight to people about HIV today are:
We’d like to emphasise that you can live a normal life span
With medication you can have better health outcomes which allows you to be more productive with your life
With medication, you can conceive naturally and have a child who is HIV free
Once you supress the infection with medication so low that its not detectable, you’re not a threat. That allows you to have no barriers to any profession. You can still be a doctor and a dentist.
Despite all this advancement 1 in 3 are still affected by stigma, and yet the stigma is more damaging than the disease itself.