“Your test came back HIV positive.”
That sentence signalled the start of my life as a 20-something HIV-positive man though, at the time, I thought it was the end of me.
Finding out you are HIV-positive is a life changing thing. Many speak of HIV in a clinical sense – what the virus does to your body if left untreated – but no one actually speaks of the emotional turmoil you go through after a positive diagnosis. I could liken the three days following my result to an emotional tempest where I would just break down and sob uncontrollably at any given time.
It felt like my body had been invaded by something alien; like my body was no longer mine. It didn’t feel fair, and the questions it brought with it were even more confusing. ‘How do I live my life now?’, ‘What does this mean for me as a person?’, ‘Will I ever find love again? Who wants to date someone positive? Because I don’t want to infect someone else… I don’t want anyone to go through this.’
I saw myself as damaged goods.
My doctor had arranged an appointment with the HIV clinic at Mater Dei for the week following my result. The staff were more than wonderful and reassuring. They explained that this is not a death sentence and that HIV is now a manageable condition which I could live with well into my old age. This all sounded promising and yet I still felt broken on the inside.
The week after, I went on treatment. Six pills a day – a cocktail of Combivir and Kaletra – three in the morning, three at night, to be taken every 12 hours. I was instructed to be as adherent as possible to the drugs as my virus could mutate and render the medication useless.
The medication was rough. It still is to this day. It feels like it’s shredding your insides, giving symptoms like a mild gastric flu. At times, I barely had enough motivation to get up and go to work or meet friends because the side effects were so crippling. Now, my body has adapted somewhat to the pills, but I still go through these periods in which my body feels like crap.
This can easily be avoided if the Government updates the current treatment that is being prescribed. The drugs that are prescribed at Mater Dei are outdated (by a decade or so) and have so many side effects, both short term and long term. Most of the world has moved on to one pill daily treatments which drastically improve the quality of life of those living with HIV. Sadly, this is not the reality of those of us living in Malta. My question is: What are they waiting for?
Within a span of four months, I had three appointments at the HIV clinic so they could monitor my CD4 count, the cells required to fight off disease, and my viral load itself to see how much of the virus is in the system. In December at Christmastime, my CD4 count had climbed to over 640, which meant my immune system was in great shape and my viral load became undetectable.
Getting your first undetectable result gave me a sense of elation I hadn’t felt in a while. It’s when the side effects I had to endure made it worth it. When an HIV-positive person reaches an undetectable viral load, and maintains an undetectable viral load for at least six months, it means that they can’t transmit the virus to another person. The anxiety that I felt about transmitting HIV to another person had started to lift and I felt lighter. I have since been undetectable for over a year – a feat I’m extremely proud of!
Something I would like to mention is that I wouldn’t be writing this today if I didn’t have the support system I have. I have been blessed with being surrounded by extraordinary people that I am lucky enough to call my friends and family. I told my close circle of friends about my diagnosis straight away, and my parents shortly after, and they have been beyond supportive. When I first told them about my new situation, I found love and acceptance when I expected fear and rejection. I desperately needed that love at that very dark time in my life. That’s the thing about HIV – it’s isolating, but it doesn’t have to be.
My experience with HIV has taught me plenty of things about myself – it has made me grow as a person and I’m now stronger in spite of it. It has also taught me to appreciate the people who really care about me, that stuck with me through the thick and thin. But, it has also made me aware that much still needs to be done with combatting HIV in this country.
HIV rates in Malta continue to rise while, in other Western countries, there is a decline. Various factors come into play here. Firstly, affordable PrEP, a preventative pill which, when taken properly, greatly reduces the risk of acquiring HIV, is not yet available. Secondly, stigma regarding HIV and all those who have it is alive and well in Malta. So much so that people are afraid to get tested, fearing a positive result. While I understand that fear can be a petrifying force, people need to know their status and go on medication in the event of a positive result to try and reach an undetectable status. It benefits everyone in the end.
I would like to thank people who are using their platforms to educate people and enact change like this portal and ARC – Allied Rainbow Communities, which have used their voices to advocate the U=U message where undetectable equals untransmittable and to campaign for PrEP. Now, I would like the Government to run a proper educational campaign on sexual health and to also endorse the U=U message, just like the CDC has.
Education is key to eliminating stigma. This was demonstrated last week by MP Edwin Vassallo, who shared fake news scaring the public to be wary of bananas that have been injected with HIV by Satanists to kill people. Sharing drivel like this is not only hurtful to those living with HIV, but it continues to fuel the fear and stigma tied to the condition. I would expect a Member of Parliament to be more informed on the matter, since their position is a gamechanger in which they can do a substantial amount of good or damage. In this case, it was the latter.
HIV positive people don’t want a lot. We want to be seen as more than our HIV status, because we are, in the end, individuals who deserve love just like everybody else, and we want access to updated treatment so that we can go about living our lives without crappy side effects.
*Author of this piece would like to remain anonymous.