Early diagnosis means successful treatment: 2 men living with HIV in Greece share their experience

Positive Voice

George Tsiakalakis and his husband George Papageorgiou are among the faces of the poster campaign for Positive Voice (Greece) for World AIDS Day 2018

Late diagnosis of HIV remains a challenge across the WHO European Region. Every second newly diagnosed person has already reached an advanced stage of the infection. In the European Union/European Economic Area, the latest data from 2017 show that almost 90% of AIDS diagnoses happened within just 90 days of the HIV diagnosis. This indicates that the majority of these AIDS cases could have been avoided with early diagnosis.

Yet being tested for HIV has never been easier. Across Europe, peer counsellors, who are not necessarily medical professionals but have received special training, give advice, support and are able to deliver results in a matter of minutes at community-based testing facilities.

In the event of a positive test result, confirmation at a health-care facility will be needed. If confirmed, doctors follow up and are then able to provide treatment using antiretroviral drugs. These drugs prevent the HIV infection from developing into AIDS and make it possible for people to live long, healthy lives with HIV. In the majority of cases, treatment leads to an undetectable level of the virus in the blood, meaning there is no need to fear transmitting the virus to sexual partners.

“Getting tested was the last thing on my mind”

For 28-year-old Dimitris in Athens, Greece, getting tested for HIV was the last thing on his mind until a friend mentioned the Athens Checkpoint, an HIV prevention centre in the Greek capital that provides counselling and rapid testing. The final motivation to get tested came when a friend was diagnosed HIV positive. So, 8 months ago, Dimitris decided to give it a try. The positive diagnosis came as a complete shock.

“I considered myself an informed person. I almost always used condoms,” he explains, adding, “But there is always the occasional time when the situation does not help you to act as you would have wanted. I felt extremely guilty. My doctor told me that I most likely got infected 2 to 3 years ago. What if I hadn’t got tested when I did? Who else did I expose to HIV all those years?”

On top of the guilt, Dimitris felt foolish for having turned down a friend’s suggestion to use pre-exposure prophylaxis, known as PrEP. These antiviral medications prevent infection with HIV and are highly effective when taken as prescribed.

“It was offered for free for a year,” he explains. “But I had thought to myself – ‘PrEP is only for people who like to take risks. Why would I need it?’”

Dimitris considers himself lucky to have been tested at the Athens Checkpoint because he got reassurance and support both before and after the test itself, which took just a few minutes.

“I am so glad my counsellor took the time to explain to me how medical science has advanced and how treatment offers a normal life nowadays,” he says.

In addition to the support he received from the Athens Checkpoint, Dimitris was fortunate to have good friends. He remembers, “When my friend was diagnosed, I did not feel comfortable talking with him about it. I regret not being there for him because I now realize how much comfort I got from the friends I told. One of them even got back to me saying he had never managed to tell others about his own HIV status and thanking me for telling him. Sharing it with friends changed my whole attitude. Of course, the best moment was the first time I mentioned it, almost as an experiment, to a sexual partner. I thought he would leave but he did not mind! There have also been times when that hasn’t turned out so well.”

“HIV has made me stronger”

George Tsiakalakis, a 37-year-old gay man living with HIV, is Communications and Advocacy Manager at Positive Voice, the Greek association of people living with HIV. He recognizes that, since his own diagnosis in 2010, Greek society has taken important steps towards acceptance, with organizations such as the Checkpoint prevention centres and Positive Voice coming to the fore. Still, there is a long way to go.

“HIV has made me stronger,” he explains. “Through this difficult situation and loneliness I acquired self-confidence. I accepted my sexual orientation and felt proud and balanced once again. However, this difficult journey would have been much easier if I had had people next to me who could inform me about issues related to my sexual health, prevention and treatment. This is how Positive Voice and the Checkpoint centres have managed to change the way in which the gay community and other groups, such as people who inject drugs and sex workers, are facing HIV.”

George is now married; he and his husband created their own family two years ago. His husband is HIV negative but, according to George, “HIV has never prevented us from expressing our love and trusting each other. Like many young people in Greece my husband believed that HIV did not concern him. However, he was willing to learn, to talk with my doctor and with other HIV-positive people. Advances in medicine have changed the way we face HIV forever and, above all, it has changed the basis on which HIV-positive people build our personal relationships.”

Don’t wait for a reason to be tested for HIV – it is always better to know

Dimitris’s advice to others is not to wait for a reason to get tested, because it is always better to know. “HIV status is still so hidden, and people don’t talk about it in Greece. When I went to London, I was surprised at how many people mentioned it on their dating app profiles. I know all this is liberating but it still takes so much courage for me to speak about it.”

George and his husband have decided to speak publicly about their story by taking part in a poster campaign for World AIDS Day 2018, sharing their personal story under the title “I’m positive”.

“My relationship with my husband is beautiful and personal but we have decided to participate in an HIV awareness campaign and share our story to spread the message that HIV cannot stand in the way of 2 people’s love for each other,” he says.

“Myths about ways of transmission, stereotypes and ignorance dominate in the public sphere and this pushes HIV-positive people into isolation, loneliness and internalized stigma. We can overcome stigma with love, solidarity, knowledge and empowerment. Loneliness is one of the biggest traps of HIV. We can all be brave when we love and support each other,” George adds.

According to the latest data from WHO/Europe and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, men are suffering disproportionately from HIV. Across the European Region, 69% of new HIV diagnoses are in men.

Sex between men is the most common way of becoming infected: 37% of people diagnosed in 2017 in the western and central parts of the Region were infected in this way.