How do you support someone who tests positive for HIV?

It never matters if it’s obvious and expected or if it’s something that appears out of nowhere: an HIV-positive diagnosis is a life-changing event for anyone.

supporting a loved one after getting HIV results

If someone you love was diagnosed with HIV today, this article is here to help you support him/her. If he/she is up for it, there’s another article we wrote specifically to help process this drastic change in reality.

Being diagnosed with HIV is one of the toughest things to endure in so many ways: mentally, physically, emotionally, socially and even spiritually. We know you want what’s best for the people you love and care about, so stick with us through this one-year support journey designed to help both you and anyone dear to you who is living with HIV:

How reliable is an HIV test?

This is understandably one of the first questions that anyone in your situation may ask. Some say it’s part of natural denial or scepticism, but the truth is that a lot of people want second opinions when it comes to medical diagnoses. We can assure you, though, that HIV tests in South Africa are 100% reliable.

The tests used to diagnose the person/people you love and care about were designed, created and constantly improved by expert scientists over many years. Of course, though, if you want to encourage that the recently diagnosed person/people go for second opinions, consider the reality that you may be aggravating the situation or creating false hope that there could still be a negative test result. We recommend that the designated doctor, nurse or clinic team be consulted, rather than speaking with the person/people in question, about this.

At all times, please remember that it’s a brave thing to do: getting tested for HIV. It’s anxiety-inducing and nerve-wracking but it’s also empowering for the person getting the test because knowing one’s HIV status is the first step to living a long and healthy life in the presence of HIV in the society we all live in.

What goes through the mind of someone recently diagnosed?

Honestly, this is going to be different for everybody. Some people go completely blank; others become overwhelmed with emotion or go into denial; and others even try to race through memories and reflect on how it could have happened. The truth doesn’t change though – testing positive means that the HIV-positive status is now a fact and a big part of reality for the person you love.

Adrenal responses are completely normal and okay. This may be news to you but HIV isn’t actually considered a terminal condition anymore. One of the very first things you can do to support your loved one/s is to understand and accept this.

HIV is chronic and completely manageable through the disciplined adherence to antiretroviral (ARV) drug therapy. Allow your loved one to feel all the feelings and think all the thoughts that come up immediately in response to diagnosis. Ultimately, you need to do this too because your life may be impacted just as much. Be kind to yourself and to the person who has just been diagnosed, whether it’s your partner, friend, colleague or another family member.

What does it even mean to be HIV-positive?

Being HIV-positive means that HIV, a virus, is present in a person’s bloodstream. Its full name, Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is almost self-explanatory. The immune system is attacked by the virus, so it becomes weaker and weaker and unable to fight off other kinds of infections, even like a basic flu.

A treatment programme, with medicine called antiretrovirals, is immediately prescribed. This medicine strengthens the immune system again, giving the body a fighting chance to completely bounce back.

Will HIV become AIDS for the recently diagnosed person?

If, at the time of getting the positive test result, the person in question did not already have what is known as full-blown AIDS, it’s not likely that he/she will develop it just because of a positive HIV diagnosis. Like we always say, getting tested is that brave first step and knowing one’s HIV status is the second step to living a long healthy life. If you can encourage and support the people you love, who are living with HIV, in taking their ARVs regularly then there’s almost no chance of the condition evolving into AIDS.

Will the person you love die if he/she has HIV?

No. Having HIV doesn’t automatically mean that someone’s going to die soon as a result. Yes, death is inevitable for all of us, but being HIV-positive is no longer considered a terminal condition. This is good news and it means that the person you love or care about, if diagnosed as HIV-positive, can absolutely conquer it.

Being HIV-positive used to be a lot scarier than it is now. There used to be no treatment for HIV, and while there is still not a cure, managing it is entirely possible. The life expectancy of an HIV-positive person who sticks to their treatment plan can be as long as an HIV-negative person.

How to cope with overwhelming emotions at this time:

Both you and the HIV-positive person may go through a rollercoaster ride of emotions, like anger, fear, anxiety, dread, betrayal, despair and hopelessness. It’s important, though, that you don’t suppress or try to hide these emotions. If you suddenly feel overwhelmed, you need to allow yourself to fully feel, express and process that.

It’s normal to cry, to just keep running until you can’t run anymore, to go sit down somewhere and process it all. We encourage journaling, in any form, because documenting your feelings means that you’re not carrying all that weight around with you every day.

Does your loved one need more information about HIV?

No, but you might. The moment that the diagnosis was confirmed, your partner, friend, colleague or family member was met with potentially unfathomable information. That was likely followed up with a bombardment of medical information from his/her doctor, nurse or clinic team. There’s so much information swirling around in his/her mind right now, so rather not add the straw that breaks the camel’s back, as the saying goes.

This is exactly the reason we’re here. Our team at AllLife has thoroughly researched the diagnosis journey from all angles, to help both your loved one and you make sense of everything. We want to support you in overcoming these hurdles, and we want you to feel empowered and in control of health and wealth again, but we know it takes small steps and regular check-ins. Remember to bookmark or save our website so you can come back to find more inspiration and information at any time.

Can you ask questions?

You know your loved ones a lot better than we do. If the recently diagnosed person is overwhelmed, then we recommend that you try to seek answers to your own questions through our dedicated HIV website. You could also speak to your own doctor, nurse or clinic team about your questions or concerns, and guidance on what to do as a pillar of support for the HIV-positive people in your life.

Do you also need HIV counselling?

HIV counselling is primarily for HIV-positive people, but it’s not limited or exclusive. It’s incredibly strong and brave of you to seek out counselling on how to support the HIV-positive people in your life, and understand the rollercoaster of emotional and mental experiences brought on by life with HIV. The more you know and understand, the more you can grow as a source of faith and inspiration for the HIV-positive people you love and care about.

If you are already an AllLife client, remember that you can contact our 24Hr Health Helpline to get you and your loved ones through the darkest moments. You are not alone in this.

What should you do now that you know someone’s HIV-positive?

It depends on your relationship with the recently diagnosed person/people, really. It’s going to feel like a much bigger event in your life if it’s someone like your spouse, partner, immediate family member or your best friend. That someone trusts you with this kind of information is also a big deal, and if you have had sexual relations with the HIV-positive person/people then it’s important that you get tested too so that you know your own HIV status.

There’s also another important fact to consider. Today being ‘day one’ may be the first day for you, on this journey, but it may not necessarily be ‘day one’ for the HIV-positive person/people you’re trying to provide support to. This is also why we’ve separated out support journeys for you and for the person/people who is/are living with HIV, so each of you can receive the support that’s best suited for what you’re individually going through.

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How should you react if your partner/spouse is HIV-positive?

This is a big deal. It’s a life-changing event. There will possibly be hundreds of questions racing through your mind, and you may want more and more information without necessarily being ready to process it all at once. Breathe, first of all. Just take deep calming breaths so you can start to process the magnitude of this news.

Repeat the information out loud to yourself, as calmly as you can. If you feel angry or you want to cry, that’s okay, but try to avoid getting violent and expressing your emotions in a way that’s harmful to your spouse/partner. Remember that HIV is not present in saliva, sweat or tears: only blood, ejaculatory fluid and breast milk, so bear this in mind while you are navigating the next few days and weeks with your spouse/partner.

Do you need an HIV test too, and what should you expect?

In this kind of relationship, there is likely to be sexual intimacy which means that you have been at risk of contracting HIV, yourself, and it’s critical that you visit your doctor, nurse or clinic to get tested for HIV, yourself. One of two things is going to happen: you may test negative, in which case you will be asked to return for another test in 21 days to assess if this is a window period and a recent infection occurred, which is not yet detectable, or you will test positive. If you do test negative, it is absolutely critical that you go back for your follow-up test in 21 days, so that you can confirm your HIV status.

If you test negative a second time, your doctor, nurse or clinic sister may ask you about your sexual activity and either recommend a third test or confirm your HIV status as negative or positive. Now, we have a lot of information about managing romantic relationships and partnerships in the presence of HIV for one or both of the members of a relationship, but there’s so much going on at this point that you need some space to process what’s going on, mentally, emotionally and maybe physically, socially and spiritually as well. If you test positive for HIV, we recommend that you look through resources like our support journey for people living with HIV, so you can adapt and conquer this life-changing event.

Should you take time off work to be with your spouse/partner?

This is a big deal, so if you need time to pause and process it, do that. You can use family responsibility or annual leave for something like this, or your own sick leave if you test positive for HIV, yourself. If you are going to take some time off, we recommend seeking out resources like counselling facilities, reading up on our website and potentially getting professional support to effectively manage and navigate communication with your partner over the next few days and weeks.

How to support your spouse/partner’s HIV treatment:

Like we mentioned earlier in this article, HIV is treatable and manageable as a health condition. It’s important for HIV-positive people to take their ARVs as soon as possible, after receiving diagnosis confirmation and the prescription or the actual medicine (clinic dispensaries will provide the medication directly, whereas private healthcare facilities are likely to provide a prescription which must be collected from a pharmacy). An incredibly supportive gesture you could make is to learn about ARVs and encourage your spouse/partner to start taking the medicine as soon as possible, and process the emotional, social and mental aspects of it while beginning treatment adherence.

Maybe you brush your teeth together every day or make lunch together and you can make taking medicine a part of that daily practice. Encouraging your spouse/partner to take his/her ARVs regularly is one of the most impactful ways to support his/her health, going forward.

How to support family members living with HIV:

It’s most likely for familial relationships that you may not find out about someone’s diagnosis on the day that it happens, especially if you’re second or third degree relatives, and your relationship with the person in question stands to be greatly impacted by this information. Judgement and stigma are real concerns for everyone who is diagnosed as HIV-positive, so the best thing you can do if you’re confronted by such news is to be compassionate and understanding toward that person or those people. It may be tough to digest, but if your parent, sibling or adult child is diagnosed with HIV, and they choose to tell you about it, it means that you’re already a source of comfort and that you’re being depended on to provide just that.

If you are a parent or guardian of a minor who is diagnosed with HIV, the doctor, nurse or clinic team on duty may make recommendations for an investigation into foul play and to have other immediate family members tested for HIV. Blood samples taken to determine pregnancy also determine HIV status in South Africa, to allow pregnant mothers to begin the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) treatment programme. If your teenage or adult child has been diagnosed, even though it may be extremely tough to control your temper or emotions, do your best to show love, care and compassion. Your child will always be your child, and being HIV-positive is no longer the death sentence that it was decades ago.

What should you do if your friend/colleague is HIV-positive?

The same concept applies here – if today’s the day you’re finding out, then it’s ‘day one’ for you but it may not be the same day that your friend or colleague was diagnosed. Consider this and be kind – the person talking to you about his/her HIV-positive status has possibly been carrying this weight around and compassion is the best thing you can provide. Most importantly: don’t treat your friend/colleague differently because of this event.

You can still socialise and include HIV-positive people in activities. Health and safety should always be a priority, not just after today, so you can learn more facts about HIV, as well as lifestyle tips, without making anyone else feel uncomfortable.

Sources:

Medicalnewstoday.com. 2018. Can People Transmit HIV Through Kissing? Busting HIV Myths. [online] Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323847 [Accessed 18 November 2020].

We all have questions.

Below are some of the answers to the most common questions that you need to know.

What is usually the first sign of HIV?

After getting infected with HIV, most patients only experience moderate flu-like symptoms. Typically, the illness is sudden in onset and is characterised by fever, swelling of the lymph glands, a measles-like rash all over the body and ulcers in the mouth and sometimes on the genitalia.

What are the 4 stages of HIV?

  • Stage 1: Infection – Exposure to infected bodily fluids.
  • Stage 2: Asymptomatic – HIV quickly spreads and the patient becomes seropositive for HIV antibodies.
  • Stage 3: Symptomatic – The immune system is now engaged in a constant battle with the rapidly replicating virus.
  • Stage 4: AIDS – At this stage, the patient’s CD4+ count is 200 cells per mm3 or less.

How soon can HIV be detected by a blood test?

No test can detect HIV immediately after infection. The time between initial infection and a detectable viral load is called the window period. It can take anywhere from 2-12 weeks to after exposure detect whether you are HIV-positive or not, depending on which testing method is used.

How long does it take to show symptoms of HIV?

Following initial infection, there is a period of intense, unchecked viral replication that occurs. It usually takes two to four weeks after infection and can last about one to two weeks, after which there tends to be a slight recovery, and the infected individual is considered to be seropositive for HIV antibodies.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is transmitted from one person to another through the exchange of body fluids. The main method of transmission in South Africa is through unprotected sexual activity.

Does HIV test affect life insurance?

Being HIV-positive can affect standard life insurance policies, particularly if your status changes from HIV-negative to HIV-positive within a particular age range. That’s why AllLife covers all lives. Your HIV status doesn’t prevent you from getting cover with us.

Can HIV-positive women have children?

Yes, HIV-positive women can enjoy healthy pregnancies and give birth to healthy HIV-negative babies. Through the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme has been highly effective in reducing transmission risk to under 1%.

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