I'm careful who I tell... the reactions aren't good
A Northern Ireland HIV patient's story
A Man living with HIV has revealed the shocking ignorance he faces as a result of his illness.
The Northern Ireland man, who was diagnosed eight years ago, revealed a former colleague refused to touch him, while another person told him only gay men and drug addicts could contract the virus.
Five years after his diagnosis, the patient - who does not want to be identified but is in his 40s - was driven to the brink of suicide as he struggled to come to terms with the stigma of living as a person with HIV.
"I'm still very careful about who I tell because of the way people react," he said. "Reactions have been so bad and I'm just not prepared to put myself at risk of coming up against that same reaction again.
"I've had enough trouble coming to terms with the diagnosis myself and I'm still working through it. If you tell one person, they tell another person and the next thing is 100 people know.
"The thing is, if you have cancer and you tell people, they give you a hug. But no one gives you a hug when you are HIV positive."
The man's comments coincide with World Aids Day today.
He is one of the 934 people in Northern Ireland known to be living with HIV.
Figures released by the Public Health Agency yesterday revealed that 103 new cases of HIV were diagnosed here last year.
Just over half of those came from men having sex with men, while 34% occurred as a result of heterosexual transmission.
In the 10 years since 2005, Northern Ireland has seen an 81% increase in new cases, in stark contrast to the UK overall, where there has been a fall of 23%. In addition, 29% of the new HIV diagnoses made in 2015 were at a later stage.
The man continued: "My mental health deteriorated rapidly after I was diagnosed. I tried to keep going and didn't tell anyone for five years.
"I obviously had to go for lots of medical appointments, but I couldn't tell work why and I was never able to speak to anyone about what I was going through.
"I got more and more depressed until I was planning suicide. Eventually, I became so ill that I was no longer able to work and ended up losing my job. My employer actually told friends and colleagues about my positive status. Funnily enough, my mum and dad, who are in their 70s, have both handled my diagnosis in a better and more educated way than most people.
"I was speaking to a former colleague after it came out about my HIV status. I went to shake his hand and he looked at me with absolute disgust and said, 'Are you kidding me? I have children at home'.
"Just a few weeks later, I was speaking to someone and my HIV came up. They asked me, 'Only druggies and gay men get HIV, so which one are you?'"
It is only because the man discovered he was unwell at an early stage that he has so far escaped any of the more serious problems that come with the virus.
This is one of the reasons why he is so keen to speak out. "I hope that by talking about my own experience it will help address the stigma and encourage more people to go and get tested," he said. "Early diagnosis really is the key when it comes to HIV."