By Chris Buckley, Positively UK’s Peer Navigator based at Homerton Hospital
This is the question that anyone diagnosed with HIV at Homerton Hospital is asked. I work as a Peer Navigator at the Clifden Centre and having lived with HIV for 16 years I am well equipped to talk to patients about what it actually means to live with the virus. The news we can give to people with HIV today is incredibly positive. Our life expectancy is normal providing we adhere to our medication. The medication suppresses the virus to such a low level that it is no longer able to cause damage to our immune system. Furthermore, following many research projects looking at the effectiveness of the medication, we can unequivocally say that the virus can’t be passed on to our sexual partners when we are on effective treatment, even without the use of condoms. People diagnosed with HIV in the early years can hardly believe that we have come this far.
There are however downsides to a HIV diagnosis. There is still so much stigma associated with the virus and we still have a long way to go before this positive message becomes widespread knowledge within the public domain. As a peer navigator I work hard to spread this news both with the patients that I see but also in the wider community. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say “but why doesn’t everyone know this? This changes everything”.
There are two peer navigators based at the Clifden Centre and we work in partnership with the trust and the excellent HIV charity, Positively UK. In addition to providing one-to-one support around the diagnosis itself, we also encourage people to attend support groups with the various charities in and around London. We offer advocacy and deal with a wide range of issues to help people navigate though many different social issues such as housing, immigration, employment and welfare support. Many of our patients say they could not have dealt with these issues without our help and support.
Homerton hospital is one of the only HIV clinics in the country that has Peer Navigators at hand on a full time basis. The British HIV Association’s (BHIVA) guidelines state that 90% of HIV patients should be offered access to peer support. It has been well documented that peer support can have a profound effect on people’s HIV journey by helping patients to feel empowered and able to live well with the virus. We should all be very proud that Homerton is one of the trusts that is leading the way in the UK in HIV care. And next time you talk to someone about HIV, be sure to spread the fantastic news. People living with HIV on effective treatment are unable to pass the virus on.