John Pynaert was just 31 years old when he was told he was HIV positive, over a phone call which he says unleashed a ‘whirlwind’ in his life.
Now, 18 months on, he is coming to terms with his diagnosis, adapting to the new lifestyle change and even helping others who find themselves in his position.
The 32 year old from Hemel Hempstead town centre has focused on maintaining his medication routine – he now takes just one tablet daily – and volunteering his spare time to support county-based HIV and sexual health charity Herts Aid.
After confessing to being part of a culture of promiscuous and unprotected sex among fellow members of the gay community, John now wants to spread the message that contraception and regular sexual health testing are vital.
Of course, the condition is not one confined to the gay population, and anyone is at risk.
For this reason, John believes education from a young age is key in raising awareness about the dangers of HIV, and helping to combat the stigma which is sadly still associated with it.
National HIV Testing Week, which began on Saturday and runs through to this Sunday, is encouraging people who may be at risk to take a free, painless ‘finger-prick’ test which can give initial results in just five minutes.
John, who shared some of his experiences with the Gazette a year ago, now says: “It has been a big lifestyle change for me. I had always been a gym-goer, but a seasonal one.
“This has made me realise I need to take care of myself more, and make sure I do and eat the right things.”
As a befriender to others who are newly diagnosed through HertsAid, John can help those in fear realise the virus is not the supposed ‘death sentence’ it was considered in the 1980s.
He said: “My own befriender had been diagnosed a year prior to me – to sit down with him and go through his year after diagnosis was instrumental for me.
“I would tell people it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be.
“As soon as you’d mention it back in the 80s, people would think, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die.’
“But the medication has come so far, and the support for people with HIV has improved dramatically.”
In 2013 there were approximately 1,036 people aged 15 to 59 with diagnosed HIV in Herts alone.
In Dacorum, 107 people are accessing HIV-related care, which reflects a 1.21 prevalance of HIV for every 1,000 people in the borough.
Worryingly, more than half of people newly diagnosed in Herts between 2011 and 2013 were diagnosed late, meaning the virus is already affecting their immune system and they are more likely to have serious health complications.
HertsAid director Suzanne Bannister said: “The issue in Herts is that we still have quite high late-diagnosis rates at 51%, which is 9% above the national average.
“There are pockets of HIV we are missing, so it’s really important that we focus on getting the message out there.
“This is a county where people think things like this don’t happen, because it’s quite a privileged area, but HIV is all over the world.
“The best thing to do is have a test – it’s simple and quick, and there is no need to be afraid.”
John, who says he has had great support from his family, friends and work, added: “There is still a stigma with HIV, but it’s events like this which really help. “Not only does it tell people with HIV that there is a community which can support each other, but it also brings awareness to people that they need to get tested and don’t have to be scared. Education is key, across the board.”
To speak to someone about HIV or sexual health or arrange an HIV test, call 01920 484784 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
> Watch a video from last year’s HIV Testing Week, explaining how the ‘pin-prick test’ works, above.