11:07 GMT +326 March 2019
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    Shawn Decker, pictured with his partner, Gwenn, was kicked out of school after testing positive for HIV

    'HIV Certainly Affected My Dating' Says Haemophiliac Who Was Infected at Age 11

    © Photo : Shawn Decker
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    Shawn Decker was exposed to HIV in the 1980s, when he was still a child. Sputnik spoke to him about living with the virus for more than 30 years and how he coped before drug treatments made the condition bearable.

    Decker, 43, is a haemophiliac and was exposed to HIV between 1980 and 1985.

    "It was not a transfusion. It was actually riskier because the treatments for haemophilia were concentrated blood plasma, culled from thousands of sources," Mr. Decker told Sputnik.

    National HIV Testing Week starts in the UK on Saturday, November 17, and charities like the Terrence Higgins Trust are emphasising that people can live perfectly normal, happy lives with the virus as long as they are diagnosed early and take treatments, usually one pill a day, which reduce the virus to "undetectable" levels.

    ​It's a million miles away from the panic and terror of the 1980s when there were no treatments available and HIV often led to AIDS, which claimed thousands of lives.

    "In the beginning I just wanted to ignore my HIV diagnosis. I hated getting labwork done to see how my t-cells were holding up. And it really bothered me that some of my friends' parents weren't comfortable with my HIV status," Mr. Decker, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, told Sputnik.

    Learning To Live With HIV

    "I never really thought too far in the future. I'm sure that I had bouts of depression — thankfully my parents let me stay home from school for weeks at a time. They gave me space and time to process things and each year I felt more comfortable in my own skin," Mr. Decker told Sputnik.

    He was even kicked out of one school for being HIV positive.

    "When I was 20 I decided to go public with my status, inspired by Pedro Zamora, who had appeared on (MTV's) The Real World a couple of years earlier. I put up a website, started writing a column for a magazine and instead of going to college as a student I was going as a speaker to share my experiences with HIV. Everything changed when I decided to open up. It's strange. One day I just realised ‘enough is enough'. The time for ignoring my status was over and I never looked back," Mr. Decker told Sputnik.

    ​But in the early 1990s HIV was still considered a death sentence and the virus could be transmitted by "unsafe sex" — in other words, without a condom — whether it was homosexual or heterosexual sex.

    Relieved to Find out French Kissing Did Not Transmit Virus

    "HIV certainly affected my dating life. My doctor tried to explain how HIV was transmitted — learning that French kissing was okay was a big deal. Sometimes the girl I was interested in was notified by others about my status. That was tough, knowing that a shadowy presence was keeping tabs on me," Mr. Decker recalls.

    ​"In high school the rumours had quietened a bit and things seemed more normal. I also had my first serious relationship. After a while we were engaging in oral sex and my girlfriend had to get tested for HIV, which came back negative. That was the moment when I realised I needed to learn about how HIV was and wasn't transmitted. That denial wasn't the best strategy any more," Mr. Decker told Sputnik.

    There have been massive advances in the treatment of HIV since the 1990s.

    New drug treatments called Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) have allowed people who have HIV to live longer lives without the virus ever progressing to AIDS.

    These treatment regimes enable many people to have sex and start families without ever passing on the virus.

    But the stigma has not entirely gone away.

    Why Is There Still a Stigma Over HIV?

    "HIV stigma is still very real. People are afraid to tell their family and friends when they test positive. People with HIV think there's no place for them in the dating world. The reality is that rejection from society in relation to someone's HIV status is still here. Attitudes have not kept pace with the medical advancements, sadly," Mr. Decker told Sputnik.

    His partner, Gwenn, is HIV negative and a few years ago the couple began educating people together as what is known as a sero-diverse couple.

    ​"People kind of looked at me with a raised brow. But as we discussed safer sex and that Gwenn isn't at any risk because we know our status, I saw people's attitudes change before my eyes," Mr. Decker told Sputnik.  

    Although AIDS is no longer a death sentence in the developed world, it is still claiming lives in Africa and other parts of the world where people do not have access to treatment.​

    Mr. Decker said HIV has changed the way he looks at life.

    "I've lived and I've learned with HIV. It's made me a more compassionate person. I love my life and I feel so lucky to be here — that HIV medications were around when I got really sick in 1999. My viral load is undetectable, which means I cannot transmit HIV to Gwenn," Mr. Decker told Sputnik.

    "If teenage me had had a crystal ball and could have seen the future, perhaps there wouldn't have been as much drama as there was. But still, I wouldn't change a thing. If I had a crystal ball now I wouldn't gaze into it. Life is an adventure and I'm ready for however much of it I'm lucky to have going forward," Mr. Decker told Sputnik.

    The views expressed in this article are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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