Surviviors who are Considering HIV Testing

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This is the virus that can cause AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). AIDS weakens the body’s immune system and increases a person’s vulnerability to contracting various common and rare infections. AIDS first appeared in the early 1980’s and has gone from being a death sentence to a chronic but manageable condition.

How can HIV be spread?

HIV is transmitted by an exchange of bodily fluids, usually blood-to-blood contact, through a break in the skin. It happens most commonly during unprotected sexual intercourse where one person is infected with the virus and where there is slight physical trauma during sex, that allows the virus entry into the bloodstream.

A person may contract HIV infection if they have been exposed to anal, oral, or vaginal rape/sexual assault, perpetrated by someone who is already infected.

Note: The risk from oral rape/sexual assault is not as high as the risk from anal and/or vaginal sex. However, the risk increases when either the victim or the perpetrator suffers from inflammation, blisters, ulcers and/or bleeding gums.

A person may contract HIV infection if they experience a sexual assault that involves the contact of a penis or vagina with any inflammation, cuts, abrasions, or sores of a perpetrator who may already be infected.

In Australia, it most commonly happens in unprotected sex between men; transmission during unprotected sex between a man and woman is less common in this country. The other common form of transmission is via blood in a contaminated needle shared between IV drug users.

Transmission from contaminated blood products no longer takes place in Australia, thanks to the screening of blood products. HIV can also be transmitted by a pregnant woman infected with the virus, to her foetus or to her baby through breastfeeding.

There’s no evidence that HIV is spread by contact with saliva or through casual contact, like sharing food utensils, towels and bedding, swimming pools, telephones or toilet seats.

How can you test for HIV/AIDS?

The test for AIDS is a blood test that tests for antibodies to HIV in the blood. Even if a person has been infected with HIV, the tests will be negative for the first few weeks. There is a window period between the time of infection and the time when enough antibodies are produced in the blood to get a positive test. This period lasts about 4-6 weeks, longer in some people. So if you are concerned that you may have been infected with HIV but the test is negative, it is recommended that you speak with your GP and repeat the test in another 4-6 weeks.

Commonly asked questions

Question One: I have been raped/sexually abused and I’m worried that I might have contracted HIV infection. What do I do?

Answer: If you are concerned that you may have been infected with HIV, you can make an appointment with one of the Laurel House counsellors, who will help assess your level of risk, and provide you with the necessary information and support. You may also like to make an appointment with your GP, or go to the Launceston Sexual Health Service to get a HIV test done.

Question Two: If I tell the people at Laurel House that I am worried about HIV, does this mean I will have to have an HIV test?

Answer: NO! No one can force you to have an HIV test. By telling us about your concerns, we can provide you with the information and support that you need to make the decision that is right for you. If you choose not to have a test, that is okay. Testing is not compulsory in Australia.

Questions Three: I’m a very private person. How can I avoid people finding out that I’m having an HIV test?

Answer:  The Australian Government has taken steps to protect the privacy of people undergoing and/or considering HIV testing. Government Legislation states that HIV testing and test results are strictly confidential. A medical officer cannot proceed with an HIV test unless you have first given written informed consent. The HIV/AIDS Preventative Measures ACT 1993, also states that information concerning test results, sexual behaviours and/or drug related behaviour shall NOT be disclosed without the written consent of the person. All blood samples are coded so that your privacy is protected.

Question Four: Can you explain the testing procedure?

Answer: A medical practitioner will take a blood test from your arm. That blood is then sent to a laboratory where it is tested to see if HIV antibodies have developed in your blood.

Question Five: When should I have a test?

Answer: Once a person becomes infected with the HIV virus, their body will begin to produce specific antibodies to fight the infection. It is these HIBV specific antibodies that are detected in the HIV test. Antibodies can develop for up to 90 days from the time that the person experienced the sexual assault/sexual abuse. This is called the window period. While it may be possible to have a test 21 days after the sexual assault/sexual abuse, it is still necessary to have a test at the end of the 90-day window period to ensure that the person is safe.

Question Six: How long will I have to wait before I find out my test results?

Answer: You will have to wait about two weeks for the results of your test.

Question Seven: How will I be informed about my test results?

Answer: The medical practitioner who took the HIV test will make an appointment with you to come back for your test results. Legislation states that you must be informed of your test results in a face-to-face appointment regardless of whether the results are positive or negative.

Question Eight: If I am HIV positive, does this mean that I am going to die?

Answer: No. Just because someone is HIV positive does not mean that they have AIDS. HIV is the virus that can lead to AIDS. A diagnosis of AIDS is made only when the immune system breaks down, leading to infections or cancer. This may not happen for a number of years after a person has contracted HIV. Medical knowledge and treatment for HIV is continually improving and many HIV positive people live long, healthy and quality lives without having to make drastic changes to their lifestyles.

Important contact details

Sexual Health Launceston – Provides a free and confidential service
Ph. 1800 675 859 or 6336 2216
www.dhhs.tas.gov.au/sexualhealth

TasCAHRD – Tasmania Council on AIDS, Hepatitis and Related Diseases
Ph. 1800 005 900
Information and support line
www.tascahrd.org.au

For more information and support, please contact Laurel House (North) on 6334 2740, Laurel House North West on 6431 9711, or email counsellors@laurelhouse.org.au