Retail worker Tom Harris says the stigma around HIV is ‘atrocious’
Retail worker Tom Harris says the stigma around HIV is ‘atrocious’

The 25-year-old Australian who had no idea he had HIV

"IT FELT like the worst food poisoning ever," said Tom Harris.

"There was fever, vomiting and cramps. I was off work for two weeks and I lost a heap of weight."

Mr Harris went to see his GP, who agreed it could well be a bout of food poisoning, and then - as suddenly as they arrived - the symptoms finished.

"I pushed it to the back of my mind. I was happy, it was summer, I met someone and got on with my life".

But what the 25-year-old retail worker didn't know was he had actually come into contact with a potentially deadly virus. And despite feeling well, the virus was still lurking.

It would take another 10 months, and another ill episode, for Mr Harris to realise he had experienced a classic sign of HIV infection, a process known as seroconversion.

"As a gay man I have always been terrified of getting it. When I came out to my mum she said, 'I love you - don't get HIV.'"

Tom Harris, 25, was diagnosed with HIV.
Tom Harris, 25, was diagnosed with HIV.

Rates of new infections of HIV, the virus that if left untreated can eventually lead to AIDS, has never been lower in NSW according to the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON).

The success of current medications means people living with HIV now have a manageable, but no longer lethal, condition while virtually impossible for those on new treatments to transmit the virus. However, while there is an aim to eradicate new HIV infections by 2020, transmission rates in Australia overall have plateaued at around 1000 new cases a year.

This week, shadow health minister Catherine King announced a future Labor Government would pump $53 million into meeting the 2020 goal.

This would included $3.6m a year to increase the number of people given access to Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP, which has proven effective at preventing infection in those people at higher risk.

But one of the biggest challenges is the substantial number of people being diagnosed late - some by more than five years - and that can mean both poorer health outcomes for those with HIV and the possibility they may have unwittingly passed it on to others.

Mr Harris' 10-month wait was modest in comparison but, nonetheless, his health began to deteriorate.

He was on a holiday when it really hit. "I was in Europe and spent most of the trip holed up in hotel rooms being really ill.

An illustration of the deadly HIV virus surrounding and attacking a host cell.
An illustration of the deadly HIV virus surrounding and attacking a host cell.

"I was getting constantly sick, chest infections, fatigue, sinus infections, diarrhoea and a bad pain in my chest like I was having a heart attack.

"I'd been Googling symptoms and it was my darkest fear that it was HIV. I was so terrified I didn't tell anyone for two months but the longer I didn't deal with it the more I would worry and the symptoms grew," Mr Harris told news.com.au.

Within five minutes of being tested it was confirmed he did have HIV, after all.

"For months I really had had no idea I had a potentially deadly virus," Mr Harris said.

He even had a negative HIV test a month after his initial illness. But it can take three months for HIV to reveal itself in the body.

"I was getting tested regularly but I took people's words for it when they said they were negative. People who don't know they have HIV can give it to other people. I was pretty ignorant about that."

It took 10 months for Tom Harris to be diagnosed with HIV.
It took 10 months for Tom Harris to be diagnosed with HIV.

It's not an uncommon story said head of ACON Nicolas Parkhill.

"We are concerned that a relatively small but important number of people are presenting for testing long after infection, and this is not good for the health of those individuals.

"That's why we are strongly encouraging anyone who may have delayed getting a test to head to their GP, a sexual health service or a community-based testing service as soon as possible," he said.

The sooner someone knows they are HIV-positive, the sooner they can get on treatment which can prevent transmission

"Our contemporary understanding of HIV prevention includes a combination of strategies such as the use of condoms, PrEP - a pill HIV-negative people take to prevent acquiring HIV - and for HIV-positive people, being on effective treatment and having a suppressed viral load (the amount of HIV in someone's system)."

Truvada is a popular HIV medication. Picture: AFP
Truvada is a popular HIV medication. Picture: AFP

Mr Harris went on to treatment and within a few months said he felt "100 per cent better".

He was relieved he hadn't passed the virus onto his then partner.

"Early on, I realised I wasn't going to keep it a secret so I flew home. At first mum was pretty devastated, it was the one thing she told me to be careful about and I felt like I'd let her down. But she's now a huge advocate and it's fantastic to have that support."

With the virus under control, Mr Harris said stigma around HIV was the next issue to deal with.

"The stigma and ignorance around HIV is atrocious and that's what we're dealing with.

"I want to live in a world where my status doesn't lead people to question my integrity."

But Mr Harris is positive about being positive. It was a tough year but it's over.

"I'm the happiest and fittest I've ever been and have this journey to thank for that.

"I get emotional thinking about what I went through, but I'm on the end of the hard bit and it's now not a huge thing in my life. It's a part of me that I cope with on a daily basis."


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