Mark Hamilton, 44, was diagnosed with HIV sixteen years ago. After giving up alcohol three years ago, he now shares his story of living with HIV with young people locally, busting stigma and myths and promoting good sexual health.
Mark, from West Horsham, just outside of Brighton, said: “I gave up drinking three years ago, and as I became more sober I wanted to do something positive, related to my HIV. So at the end of 2015, I approached Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) about going into schools to give talks about HIV as part of their Positive Voices programme.”
“Kids are sponges, they soak up the information you’re telling them and the questions they ask can be jaw dropping. They are very aware of what is going on around them, probably from the internet, and curious to find out more. That’s why it’s really powerful for us to share our stories and educate them on sexual health.”
The Positive Voices programme, run by THT, empowers local people living with HIV to share their story in schools and colleges to increase awareness and knowledge among young people.
He added: “It feels really good to make young people aware of HIV. Many people don’t know about HIV until it becomes part of their life. I never make my talks all about the doom and gloom – I make them about empowering people to make the right decisions.”
Mark, who was born in the UK and grew up in South African explains how his HIV diagnosis was a shock. “I was diagnosed about 15 or 16 years ago while living in Cape Town. At the time I was binge drinking and probably taking risks because of this, but when I went for the test I had no idea I had HIV.
“Back then the treatment was unaffordable in South Africa – it was the same price as my rent. Just after my diagnosis I contracted TB. I really thought I was dying. I couldn’t take my HIV meds at the same time as my TB meds, so I had to stop taking medication for my HIV which was really risky.
He continued: “In 2005 I moved back to England but my drinking continued. It got worse and worse. I couldn’t walk down the street without feeling self-conscious. On the 10th January 2014 I was arrested for drink driving. It was the wake up call I needed, and I stopped drinking there and then.
When I talk at schools, I include the alcohol element, because young people need to know that alcohol can lead to you taking sexual risks that you might not otherwise take. For me, getting HIV was a result of my drinking.”
Stigma and myths still prevail around HIV, but with Mark’s talks, he is breaking down the stigma and separating fact from fiction.
“It is shocking that young people don’t know the difference between HIV and AIDS. I ask myself ‘how is that possible in today’s society?’
“There are still people run a mile when you tell them you are positive, and there are still people out there that say if you have HIV you shouldn’t work here. The ignorance is shocking.
“People also don’t understand what having an ‘undetectable’ viral load is or how important it is. Even gay men don’t know what it is.”
Mark has an undetectable viral load, which means the amount of HIV in his blood is reduced so much that he cannot pass on the virus.
“This is a game changer. It changes everything. There are opportunities that HIV+ men haven’t taken out of fear of infecting someone.”
Reflecting on his life today, Mark says: “People ask would I do things differently and I always say no. My HIV has put life in a better perspective, I’ve met wonderful people and I’ve had the chance to make a difference to young people.”