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HIV positive men undress to raise awareness about ageing with the virus

HIV positive men undress to raise awareness about ageing with the virus

Bisi, Marcos and Graeme are three of the HIV positive men taking part in the new campaign

A new campaign aims to encourage HIV positive men to take steps to live a long and healthy life.

Entitled HIV is: just a part of me, it features 11 gay men from across Europe who are positive and on treatment.

Its aim is to encourage men to take an active role in ensuring that they maintain a good quality of life for as long as possible. This means being aware they may be susceptible to other illnesses and will face all the regular challenges of ageing.

Riccardo, 26, from Italy but now living in UK – his body art highlights diabetes (Photo: HIV is: Just a Part of Me)

The campaign has been produced by pharmaceutical giant, Gilead Sciences.

‘The campaign aims to improve understanding amongst gay and bisexual HIV positive men of eight potentially serious health challenges that can affect their HIV health,’ says a press statement.

‘[It] encourages men living with HIV to move forward from just focusing on their viral load as a measure of health, towards considering their risk of developing these eight health challenges.’

The campaign was planned in conjunction with a steering committee of HIV organizations. These included Plus Onlus (Italy), BASELINE (UK) and ARDHIS (France), among others.

Graeme, 32, UK - his body art highlights mental health
Graeme, 32, UK – his body art highlights mental health (Photo: HIV is: Just a Part of Me)

Body paint to highlight health issues

Each man involved took part in a photo project and video. They removed their top and allowed an artist to highlight different body parts that can be affected by ‘co-morbidities’. These include the bones (osteoporosis), lungs, kidneys, heart. Conditions include type II diabetes, among others.

Mental health is also part of the conditions examined. It is known those diagnosed with HIV are more susceptible to mental health problems. This is, in part, due to continuing stigma around the virus.

In their respective videos, they talk about being HIV positive, their health and concerns.

Steps people are encouraged to take include: talking improving their nutrition and keeping an eye on their weight; stopping smoking; or simply talking to their health professionals about ageing with HIV.

‘There are many HIV prevention campaigns, but far too few for those already living with HIV’

One of those included in the campaign is Antonis Papazoglou, 38, from Greece. He has been living with HIV for seven years.

Antonis, 38, from Greece
Antonis, 38, from Greece – his body art highlights cardiovascular health (Photo: HIV is: Just a Part of Me)

‘There are many HIV prevention campaigns, but far too few for those already living with HIV,’ he explains as part of the campaign.

‘I want HIV is: Just a part of me to help others know that they are not alone. It’s normal to be worried and not know how to deal with your diagnosis, but once you do you can move on and look after your long term health.’

Loving myself more

Another of those to take part was Greame, 32, from Liverpool in England. At yesterday’s event he talked about how his diagnosis five years ago impacted his mental health. He told GSN that receiving the news of his diagnosis was like ‘a car crash’.

He said taking part in the campaign had been empowering: ‘Very much so. Before I got my HIV diagnosis, I’d spent a lot of my 20s with serious mental health problems. I’d had some trauma when younger.’

His HIV diagnosis had made him reassess his life and mental health and actively seek out support. ‘I needed to start taking some serious responsibility for my mental health. And start loving me a lot more than I was before.

Bisi, 43, from Nigeria but living in UK - his body art highlights kidney health
Bisi, 43, from Nigeria but living in UK – his body art highlights kidney health (Photo: HIV is: Just a Part of Me)

‘Becoming HIV positive, it’s been bad, but some positive things have come from it, and one of the big things is actually getting involved with this campaign. I was very particular about how I shared my HIV status before I did this campaign. That was the internalized stigma – it stopped me being authentic to me as a person.’

One of the medical professionals supporting the campaign is Dr Tristan Barber, Consultant Physician at Chelsea & Westminster NHS Trust.

‘Our focus for HIV management has changed in recent years and we now need to address the wider health issues associated with living long-term with this disease,’ he said in a press statement.

‘It isn’t just about controlling the HIV virus anymore. Patient awareness of other health conditions linked to HIV could be improved, and we want this campaign to be the catalyst for better understanding.’

Philip, 32, UK - his body art highlights healthy bones
Philip, 32, UK – his body art highlights healthy bones (Photo: HIV is: Just a Part of Me)

‘It isn’t just about controlling the HIV virus anymore’

At yesterday’s launch, GSN took the opportunity to ask: Are the long-term health problems explored in the campaign linked to the impact of the HIV virus on the body, or are any linked to side-effects of long terms medication use?

‘Historically, they were to do with medication or untreated virus,’ says Barber. ‘But what we’re seeing now, as we’re seeing people diagnosed and put on treatment earlier … is there something that happens when you first get HIV that means you’re still at risk a bit down the line of HIV-related issues? Or are we going to see [those issues] slowly fade out as we start treatment earlier?

‘We’re managing a group of people who have been historically treated with lower CD4 counts, who had longer periods of exposure to virus.

‘What we want to do is encourage people newly diagnosed to be on treatment as soon as possible, live as healthy as possible, and we don’t yet know the answer to that experiment which will happen 20, 25 years down the line.’

Barber says the range of anti-HIV drug treatments on the market are now generally well tolerated by patients. He hopes the campaign will encourage more men to talk to their doctors about their health concerns.

‘We have that historic thing where GP practices [in the UK] are often called family practices or family doctors. This excludes a lot of people who may not feel they fit into that heading. I would like to see some of that stigma broken down by a campaign like this.’

Wojciech, 71, from Poland - his body art healthy bones
Wojciech, 71, from Poland – his body art healthy bones (Photo: HIV is: Just a Part of Me)

‘How do you live long with HIV?’

Peter Borg is Medical Director, Gilead Sciences Europe. Asked why Gilead had produced the campaign, he pointed to the fact that 1 in 3 people living with HIV in Europe are over 50.

‘That talks in some respect to the success of treatment, and so one of the emerging issues now is how do you live long with HIV?

‘The whole purpose of the campaign is if you raise awareness that these co-morbidities exist, then you can start having a conversation with your doctor around the best way to manage those.’

He said he hoped the campaign, which focuses on how to live a long life with HIV, would help to address some of the stigma around the virus and encourage more people to get tested.

A similar campaign, aimed at women, is planned for later this year.

‘Bold campaign for a pharma company’

One of those to welcome the campaign was HIV+ postive blogger, Tom Hayes. He said he thought it, ‘A very bold campaign for a pharma company. They usually tend to err on the side of caution with these things. It was nice to see them addressing issues relating to men who have sex with men.

‘I think the most impactful thing anyone in this area – with diseases such as HIV or cancer or diabetes – is to involve people living with that condition in the messaging.

‘It really hits home to other people who are living with the same condition who are watching, and it speaks more to health professionals as well.

Paolo, 31, from Italy - Paolo's body art highlights healthy lungs
Paolo, 31, from Italy – Paolo’s body art highlights healthy lungs (Photo: HIV is: Just a Part of Me)

Matthew Hodson, Executive Director of NAM, also welcomed the campaign. He told GSN, ‘People with HIV are living longer. In the UK now, four in ten people in HIV care are over the age of 50. Increasingly we have to consider how the challenges of aging affect people living with HIV.

‘Heart disease, diabetes and cancer all occur a little more frequently in people living with HIV, although it is hard to separate out what is the result of HIV infection and what is the result of other lifestyle factors. People with HIV are more likely to smoke and have higher levels of stress, both of which can have an significant impact on a range of health issues.

‘Especially as you get older, it’s important to stay in touch with your healthcare providers. The regular tests and screens at HIV clinic appointments means problems can be spotted early.’

Check out all the videos in the campaign here.

See also

‘I said I wouldn’t limit myself to dating HIV+ men’