How to overcome your fear of HIV testing
So, you finally decided to meet up in a hotel room with the guy you were chatting with in an online gay hook-up app. The sex was good, really good, and you went home happy and satisfied. The guy was also nice, and you felt that there’s potential for something more long-term. Until you heard a rumor that he’s HIV positive. You remembered that you had condomless sex with him, so you are now scared that you might be HIV positive.
The only way to know if you have HIV is through an HIV test. However, despite the growing number of HIV cases among gay and bisexual men and trans women in Asian cities, many still hesitate to take an HIV test for various reasons. There are social and legal contexts that prevent access to HIV testing, such as criminalization and stigma and discrimination towards gay and bisexual men and transwomen. There are also other personal issues that need to be addressed.
The lack of understanding of how HIV is acquired gives people a sense of complacency about the HIV epidemic. Others feel that because they are in a relationship, they are not at risk of HIV infection. HIV shaming also affects how people perceive HIV services, hence the perception that HIV interventions like HIV testing and condoms are only for promiscuous people.
The fear of HIV testing, among others, is contributing to the spread of the HIV epidemic. When an HIV-positive individual is not aware of his or her HIV status, he or she is not only potentially exposing others to HIV, he or she is also denying himself or herself of access to life-saving services that can stop HIV from destroying the immune system.
Going to HIV clinics and getting tested should be part of our lives. Here are 5 things to know about HIV and HIV testing that can help you overcome your fears:
- It is not about your identity, whether you’re gay, bi, trans or straight, it’s about risk of infection. HIV testing facilities are required to go through risk assessment to help you understand about HIV risks. For the gay, bi, and trans communities, consider this: first, if you are have condomless anal or vaginal sex with another person whose HIV status you really don’t know, then get tested. It is not a question of with whom you’re having sex with, whether with strangers or you own partner; even couples need to consider having an HIV test to know their HIV status. Second, if you inject drugs and share needles and syringes, then you need to get tested for HIV to know if your exposure resulted in infection.
- The sooner you know, the better. Knowing your HIV status is not just for your peace of mind. If you are negative (HIV speak: a negative result is called non-reactive; a positive result is called reactive), then accessing testing for the first time will help remove unfounded fears about it. It is normal to feel concerned, but don’t let your fears to paralyse you from knowing your HIV status.
- HIV is not a death sentence. Due to antiretroviral treatment, HIV has become a lifetime condition that can be managed, similar to diabetes. Stop treating HIV testing facilities as the gates to the Afterlife. Most HIV-related deaths are due to late diagnosis (or knowing that a person is HIV positive at the latter stage of the infection, when the immune system is damaged and the person is vulnerable to different opportunistic infections). This means that the real death sentence is NOT knowing your HIV status.
- HIV testing is confidential. This means that the result of the test is only known to you and your doctor. There are also some clinics like the Anonymous Clinic in Bangkok where accessing HIV services, including testing, is anonymous – you are not required to give your name and your other details are de-identified. In most Asian cities, there are laws penalising disclosure of a patient’s HIV information. Note, however, that some countries have criminalised non-disclosure of HIV status, mostly to require HIV positive individuals to disclose their status to their sexual partners. There are countries with restrictions against travellers and migrant workers who are HIV positive, and hence they require HIV testing prior to your travel. You can read thisUNAIDS document for more information.
- HIV testing facilities and other HIV facilities need to comply with human rights-informed standards on HIV prevention, treatment and care. This means that efforts should be done by HIV facilities to make their sites community-friendly: gay and bisexual men and trans women are not stigmatized or given inferior services; confidentiality rules are applied; and operation hours are adjusted to reach out to communities. In Quezon City, Philippines, there is a local government-run HIV sundown clinic to reach gay and bisexual men and trans women who might be at work or in school during regular hours. A similar clinic operates in the evenings and weekends in Bangkok. If you want to learn more about these standards, check out these guidelines from WHO.