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It was the hardest thing to hear but it felt bizarrely fortuitous – how an opt out test for HIV saved Oliver’s life
Had Chelsea and Westminster Hospital not been the emergency department I found myself in, whilst they had an ongoing trial for a routine opt-out HIV testing programme, I may still be unaware of my status or would have become very unwell. At the time, though, the news broke me. The stigma of it; what will I tell my friends, family, and colleagues? My naval career is over; I will be isolated; I’ll have no future! All this went through my mind day and night. I became depressed. Naturally, it took time to understand the implications of HIV on my life and my career. My doctors could tell me about treatment and modern life expectancy, but no one seemed to know about my career. I remember my line manager was extremely supportive. However, policy and procedure meant I’d be medically downgraded, limiting my deployment and changing my work duties. For as long as possible, I kept my head down.
A year later, I was cleared to return to my previous role, but I couldn’t cope. I’d lost my confidence. I had started to feel the pressures of societal stigma and prejudice against people with HIV. I became paranoid. Once again, I was downgraded but this time due to depression and anxiety and was signed off work. I expect these feelings aren’t unique. I’m convinced most, if not all, people living with HIV go through this at some stage, I still do today.
I was quickly put on a treatment pathway where I received world class, lifesaving medicines. I was supported from all quarters. Even if I’d decided to keep it to myself, I’d have had the support of medical teams and support groups of people in the same situation as me, people who could relate and help. I was lucky, fortunate. It felt bizarrely fortuitous.
Routine opt-out testing in A&E departments saves lives. It saved mine and stopped me from passing on the virus to others. Eventually, you could say it gave me a new purpose and perspective. It is finding out early, whether man or woman, gay or straight, means lifesaving treatment. Advances in modern medicine mean the infection can be treated to the point where there is so little HIV in the blood it’s no longer attacking the immune system; this is known as undetectable. Undetectable also means I cannot pass on the virus, no ifs, no buts. Not worrying about being “infectious” or “a danger” to a partner, girlfriend or boyfriend, or any of my colleagues in the Armed Forces, is a game changer.
Two years following my diagnosis, I’ve channelled my energies. I’ve been battling for the rights of my colleagues, current and future, to ensure that an HIV diagnosis doesn’t mean the end of a service career or be blocked before it has even started. The language, tone and policy around how we respond to this scenario are brought into the modern age. I’ve campaigned hard to lift the blanket ban on people with HIV being able to serve our country. I didn’t think it would happen, but sure enough, on 1 December 2021, the Ministry of Defence announced that the “Armed Forces would make major changes to end HIV being a barrier to service”. And taking the HIV prevention drug, PrEP, ceased being a barrier to joining or restricting service in the military. As of June last year, it became policy, and we are the first NATO nation to make this change; I know others will now follow suit. I can now once again be recognised as fully fit for service.
Slowly the barriers for, and the stigma towards, people living with HIV reflect the science. If the Ministry of Defence can change, anyone can.