Northern Ireland

HIV, my baby and me: 'I was 17 years old when I was diagnosed'

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Media captionThe woman was 17 years old when she was diagnosed with HIV

"People will judge me, but I'd just say walk a mile in my shoes."

Jane, not her real name, was 17 years old when she was diagnosed with HIV.

"I'd only slept with one person when I got HIV, I know people will hear that and think it's a sob story, but it's the truth," she told BBC News NI.

When Jane was diagnosed she was one of the youngest women in Northern Ireland known to have the virus.

HIV is a virus which, over time, damages the human immune system leading to illness and infection.

There are 1,130 people receiving treatment for HIV in Northern Ireland. It is not known how many more people are living with the virus undiagnosed.

The charity Positive Life says there is still a myth that it's a "gay man's disease".

Figures show that in Northern Ireland almost 40% of those living with HIV contracted the virus through heterosexual contact and more than 200 women have been diagnosed HIV-positive.

"When I was first diagnosed, I started to research stuff online and I watched some films where people had HIV and it really scared me," said Jane.

"It showed people getting really sick and their skin started to get really bad and it showed people dying. I thought: 'Is this what is going to happen to me?'"

What is HIV?

In 2018, 96,142 people were receiving HIV-related care across the UK.

HIV - Human Immunodeficiency Virus - is a virus which, over time, damages the human immune system.

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Media captionPositive Life's Jacquie Richardson explains the main misconceptions about HIV and Aids

The immune system is the body's defence against infectious organisms and infections. Problems with the immune system can lead to illness and infection.

Aids - Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome - is the result of damage to the immune system caused by HIV.

Jane's mother admits she initially struggled with her daughter's diagnosis.

"At the start, I had all the stereotypes and stigmas in my head that you could think of.

"I just thought: 'This can't be happening to her.' And how unfair it was to be happening to someone her age, to someone who wasn't promiscuous.

"But I know now it doesn't matter if you're promiscuous or not, it only takes one time, and the rest of your life can be changed forever."

'I have a baby boy'

Those living with HIV have the same life expectancy as those without the condition, thanks to antiviral treatments used since 1996.

Following her diagnosis, Jane began medication which suppressed the virus and made HIV levels virtually undetectable in her system.

This meant it couldn't be transmitted - even through sexual activity.

Since then, Jane has given birth to a baby boy.

"During my pregnancy I was on three different types of tablets to make sure that my baby wouldn't get HIV," she said.

"I have a wee boy now, but the medication worked, because he doesn't have HIV.

"HIV isn't going to stop me being there for my son. I still have a roof over my head, I have family support."

There were 4,500 pregnancies to HIV-positive women in the UK and Ireland between 2015 and 2018.

Of those, less than 20 have transmitted the virus to their children, either through pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.

There are still many misconceptions about HIV, according to the charity Positive Life.

"People will still ask if you can catch HIV off a toilet seat or by using the cutlery of people who are HIV-positive - there is still a lot of negative language around it, " said Positive Life's Jacquie Richardson.

"The three biggest myths we hear are that it's a gay man's disease, that it's contracted as a result of a promiscuous lifestyle and that you'll die if you've a diagnosis.

"We're working very hard to counter those myths."

People living with HIV

in Northern Ireland

  • 1,130 894 male & 236 female

  • 51%are men who had sex with men

  • 36%through heterosexual transmission

  • 13%unknown

Source: Public Health England

There is still a lot of work to be done to educate the public about women and HIV, said Ms Richardson.

"Many people wouldn't even consider that if a woman is HIV-positive she can now, through early diagnosis and medication, have a baby that doesn't have HIV, and that's a powerful message," she said.

"That's why stories like Jane's are so important in challenging all the myths and misconceptions.

"This is a young woman from Northern Ireland, engaging in her first sexual activity, in a heterosexual relationship and she contracts HIV - all of the stereotypes and assumptions people associate with HIV are turned on its head by this very powerful story."

Taboo subject

Jane's mother believes more should be done to educate young people about the risks of contracting HIV.

"HIV is still such a taboo subject," she said. "My daughter's story shows it's possible for a young girl in her prime to get HIV and I believe more could be done around sexual education in schools."

She added: "Because of organisations like Positive Life, we're more informed now. We know her HIV can't be cured, but it can be treated.

"But that also means she is going to be on very strong medication for the rest of her life and that does worry me."

Jane is determined not to be defined by being HIV-positive.

"I can't change the past, but what I would say to anyone, if you're sexually active, whether it's your first time or not, just be safe," she said.

"I have to live with the fact that I'm HIV-positive, but I won't let it ruin my life."

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