HIV: break the stigma

WHEN Kristal Walker tested positive for HIV seven years ago, she knew very little about the illness and says “I thought I was going to die”.

Nowadays, modern medication given to people living with HIV is largely side-effect free, can keep the illness under control, and renders the viral load completely undetectable.

In recent years several pieces of research, including the landmark PARTNER study, have followed thousands of couples, revealing that when the viral load is undetectable, it was not sexually transmitted.

Misguided

Ms Walker is one of the faces of the new Undetectable=Untransmittable awareness campaign, aimed at getting the message out about the latest research and debunking outdated attitudes.

Ms Walker contracted HIV from a former partner in South Australia.

He disappeared, and she then lost her job at a Telstra call centre after management found out about her condition.

She moved to WA and has been trying for a baby with her current partner for three years. He remains HIV negative.

Ms Walker says she was shocked that he didn’t run for the hills when she first told him she had the virus.

• Kristal Walker is taking part in the Undetectable=Untransmittable HIV awareness campaign. Photo by David Bell

“It is scary to tell your partner, it really is,” she says.

“But I explained it to him at the start.

“I’d always wanted kids, and seven years ago when I found out, I thought there was no chance in hell—I thought my sex life was over.”

Ms Walker now liaises with an specialist who helps HIV+ mothers at Princess Margaret Hospital.

With no treatment, a pregnant woman has about a 10 to 20 per cent chance of passing HIV to her baby.

Treated and with an undetectable viral load, the risk just about disappears, and prophylactic medicines can be given to the baby shortly after birth.

But Ms Walker says the message is hard to get out there, and many people are still operating on old and misguided information.

“The most shocking response is when they don’t know there’s a difference between HIV and AIDS,” she says.

“I’ve been asked that question about ten times.”

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) can progress to the more serious condition AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) when it is untreated for about five to ten years.

On modern medication, people can live out their lives with it never progressing to AIDS.

Now studying counselling and 30 years old, Ms Walker says many women with HIV often don’t speak up, and she’s hoping the campaign encourages more to come forward.

“I only know one or two: most women when they do get it brush it aside and power on, and keep really quiet about it,” she says.

“In the gay community, people are more open about it.”

She says her life has felt a lot more free since she started being open about it, first telling her fellow counselling students and getting an understanding reaction, then featuring in a DVD telling her story for the AIDS council, and now with the U=U campaign.

She is also a member of the new group, Positive Organisation of WA.

“I just wanted to get it off my chest,” she says.

It also led to her meeting another woman with HIV, one who’d had the illness for 30 years. Knowing someone who’d had HIV for as long as Ms Walker had been alive, made her more optimistic about her own future.

Ms Walker, and other people living with HIV, will be sharing their stories via videos posted on positivewa.org, from November 26 to World Aids Day, December 1.

by DAVID BELL

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