I’ve spent the past few posts talking about my life with HIV from a personal and social perspective and thought it might benefit some of my readers who aren’t HIV positive to discuss in this post some of the science behind it.
I was on holiday in France when I first became unwell; it was actually the final day of the holiday. In typical British fashion we were still white as anything the day before and spent the whole day in the sun in an attempt to return with a tan, I ended up a scarlet shade of red. So as we were heading towards the airport and I was suffering from an awful headache I presumed I was dehydrated or had sunstroke. At the same time I had noticed during the week that I thought I might be seeing the signs of an STI. I went to the GUM clinic when I was back and had the regular tests as well as a blood test for HIV. The ‘sunstroke’ didn’t disappear and I ended up off sick and in bed for two weeks. The test results came back during this time, I was treated for gonorrhoea and chlamydia, I felt like a tramp. The HIV test came back negative, a relief? Not really: I had never even given any thought at this point in time that someone like me could contract the virus.
What I now know is that I wasn’t suffering from a bug, swine flu or anything else, I was seroconverting. My body was rapidly producing antibodies to fight the virus, with HIV they do little to assist; some of them even make the problem worse. At the same time the virus itself is replicating throughout the body and increasing in volume. I had tested negative because the levels of the antibodies weren’t high enough to detect so soon after contracting the virus. By the time November came the levels had risen significantly and the positive result was confirmed.
A brief cry, a hug from the ex and the nurse walks back in the room she left me in to take in the diagnosis. They ask if I am ok to give some more blood for further tests, there’s a lot of medical jargon being thrown at me but the fighter in me agrees they can go ahead and I return a week later. They’re tests are ones I now routinely have about every six months. They’re measure a few different aspects of my health but the two important tests are for my Viral Load and CD4 Count.
The Viral Load (VL) is basically the number of copies of HIV in a cubic millilitre of blood. Essentially more copies in the blood leads to easier transmission and a bigger fight for the body. Initial tests revealed I had 75,000 copies, at the time I didn’t really know what this meant, but guessed it wasn’t amazing news. CD4 cells are akin to army lookouts, they’re the cells that send a signal to the body that an immune response is necessary when a virus is detected. In a healthy person you would expect to find 500-1500 approx. in a cubic millilitre of blood. HIV attacks CD4 cells and so their number is reduced. I was told that my CD4 was 218 when I was diagnosed. In the same appointment I was advised that in the UK people are advised to start treatment when their CD4 is below 350. So alarm bells were ringing but I was told to come back again a couple of weeks later to have further checks.
My second set of results: VL 79,000 and CD4 213. It was time to start medication. The consultant opened a booklet with what seemed to be a bazillion different drugs on it, listed with some of their side effects, when to take them, how to take them. It was agreed between us what course I would start, I wanted to avoid certain side effects, such as vivid dreams and didn’t really have an issue with the number of pills I would need to take, I have a big gob!
I take my medication daily, usually at around 10pm at night. Truvada is a blue pill and combines two different drugs, Tenofovir and FTC, it’s known as a Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitor. They inhibit the reserve transcriptase, basically an enzyme that HIV needs to reproduce. Darunavir is an orange pill, I have two of these and finally Ritonavir, a small white pill. They are both Protease Inhibitors, preventing HIV replication by inhibiting the activity of proteases. I don’t really suffer with any bad side effects but I get bloated very easily and do find I go to the toilet more than I used to but nothing unbearable. It can get annoying when I am having a ‘fat’ day my belly looking like I’ve consumed a banquet when I’ve just been eating normally but I’ve got used to this and it’s worth the results that I am achieving.
My VL is now ‘undetectable’, the tests can only read a minimum of 40 copies, anything less than this they can’t pick up. It makes transmission for the virus more difficult and means there is less of it attacking my body, it’s the best result a HIV positive person can look for today. This has a benefit to the CD4 cells. My last test result I had a reading of around 370. The highest peak was earlier this year, 472.
I am happy that my body has responded to medication so well. Without it I would have been susceptible to viruses and diseases and could become very sick. This is why it is so important to get tested. Until you know you’re status you can’t be treated and without treatment you can get into trouble. November 23rd starts National HIV Testing Week, I plead with people in high risk groups to go and get tested over the next seven days, KNOW YOUR STATUS. The nurses and doctors will not judge you and are there to help you.
To find out more visit www.tht.org.uk/thinkhiv
If you’re recently diagnosed or worried about a positive diagnosis and want to talk to people in the same boat try reading some of the topics on the myHIV Community Forums or feel free to contact me direct, I’m not a professional counsellor or a doctor but I’ve been through this and I’m here to lend an ear for anyone that needs it.