Date: 30 November 2017
A HIV-positive woman has praised medical research that has enabled her to live a normal life.
Halima Ahmed from Milton Keynes spoke ahead of World AIDS Day (1 December) about how she is living well thanks to medications for her HIV.
The 56-year-old single mother of three was diagnosed with HIV in 1999.
HIV is a virus that damages the cells in the immune system and weakens its ability to fight infections and disease.
HIV is found in the body fluids of an infected person, including semen, vaginal and anal fluids, blood, and breast milk. It cannot be transmitted through sweat, urine or saliva.
The most common way of contracting HIV in the UK is through having anal or vaginal sex without a condom.
AIDS is the name used to describe life-threatening diseases that happen when the immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus.
AIDS was first discovered in 1981 and HIV was identified as the cause in 1983. By 1987 The Global Program on AIDS was launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) to raise awareness and promote research into the disease.
In 1987, the first antiretroviral medication was approved to treat HIV and by 1996 the number of new cases diagnosed had declined for the first time since 1981.
There is currently no cure for HIV, but drug treatments can enable people with the virus to live a long and healthy life. These are given as tablets which need to be taken daily for the rest of a patient’s life.
Ms Ahmed said: “It was when I was having unprotected sex, but I don’t know how it happened. I just started to feel weak and tired. When I went to my GP they thought that I had flu, they gave me some antibiotics and they were not working so then they said to me ‘you need to come for a blood check up’.”
Ms Ahmed took a blood test at Milton Keynes University Hospital (MKUH) and was given her results at a visit to the John Warin Ward at Oxford’s Churchill Hospital.
She said: “It really affected me because at first I was thinking ‘I’m going to die’, but the doctors in Oxford told me there’s medication they can give me to live longer.
“It was a shock to me, but it wasn’t a very big shock because I knew that there was a lot of help for me with medication. I thought ‘thank God I’m in good hands’.
“My life is not like it was before. I have some boundaries at the moment. If I have a relationship, I have to be careful and use protection.”
Ms Ahmed has been taking antiretroviral medications, which stop the virus from replicating in the body. Since 2006, she has shown no signs of HIV in lab tests.
She said: “I’m taking Atripla, it’s really doing wonders because at the moment I’m being told that the virus is undetectable. It’s been that way since 2006.
“I feel healthy in myself. The doctors [at the John Warin Ward] see me every six months. All of the doctors know me well, it’s like my second home here. They’re very good to me. They help me. When I ask them questions about my health, they tell me. They are very good and co-operative.”
Speaking of giving support to HIV patients at MKUH, Ms Ahmed said: “I’m helping some people who have HIV. I’m giving counselling to them. There was a lady I knew who was very poorly and I gave her so much support, and to a few other people.
“I just do it to help people to accept it and that this disease is just a disease and you just try to live. The only thing is you have to accept it and look after yourself. That’s the most important thing.
“I would tell them that once you’ve been diagnosed, you should know that it’s not the end of the world. You take your medication. Things are good nowadays. You just take your medication, eat healthily. Of course it’s hard, but this disease is just like any other so you just have to accept it and take your treatment and you will live a happy life.
“HIV is spreading so I would like for research and awareness to protect people from HIV and then we can reduce it. I feel very proud to raise awareness of HIV research. We’re going to save more lives, money to the NHS and I think people will know more about it, learn to accept it and not feel stigma about it.”
The National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) is funding HIV research in the NHS.
Patients being treated for HIV at MKUH have their data collected and stored anonymously for use in NHS research with their consent.
The UK Collaborative HIV Cohort Study (UK CHIC) is a database, funded by the Medical Research Council, with information on over 50,000 HIV patients in the UK.
Its purpose is to analyse data to monitor how people with HIV respond to medication. This data will be used to inform future research studies.
Other current HIV studies being supported by the NIHR in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes and Oxfordshire include:
Dr Dushyant Mital, consultant in blood borne viruses, HIV medicine & sexual and reproductive health at MKUH, said: “One of the biggest findings from the UK CHIC database is the early instance of non-AIDS-related conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure compared to someone who doesn’t have HIV.
“This led to development of HIV age-related services, such as metabolic clinics, where we’re noticing these problems early on and managing them.
“When I first started 20 years ago, many of our patients were not getting past 45 to 50 years old due to dying from AIDS and now we’ve got 75 to 80 year olds in our books, as we have managed to add an extra 35 to 40 years to patients’ lifespans thanks to antiretroviral treatments.
“As long as patients are attending dedicated HIV services, a patient should not be dying of HIV or AIDS, so we’ve made huge strides in turning HIV and its complications from a terminal disease to a chronic condition.
“What is also important is that when I first started working on HIV research in 1997, we were giving patients 20-30 pills a day and now it’s just one pill a day containing all three drugs - antiretrovirals - to allow convenience.
“We are also looking at potential future treatments to further improve convenience and compliance, for example into giving patients monthly injections instead of pills that need to be taken daily but this is not yet rolled out.
“We are hoping to participate in trials for pre-exposure prophylaxis, which is giving standard HIV treatments to people without HIV who have a risky lifestyles, for example sexual behaviour, to see if this can effectively prevent them from being infected.
“People still have this image of what HIV was and it’s still a devastating diagnosis for many people. It still requires lifestyle changes, partner notification, and testing on children, so it has a domino effect on all areas of a patient's’ life. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging for me to say ‘you will not die of HIV or AIDS as long as you continue to attend a HIV clinic’.”
Participating in health research helps develop new treatments, improve the NHS and save lives. The NHS supports research through asking patients if they wish to take part in trials and healthy people if they also wish to take part, so results can be compared to those with a medical condition.
Patients are also encouraged to ask their doctor about research opportunities and view trials seeking volunteers at The UK Clinical Trials Gateway at www.ukctg.nihr.ac.uk.
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