HIV – still a death sentence?

20 November 2015

Earlier this week, Hollywood star Charlie Sheen took to national television to confirm that he is living with HIV.

After days of intense media speculation, the former star of sitcom Two And A Half Men appeared on NBC's Today show, stating "I am here to admit that I am HIV positive". Sheen revealed that he had paid "enough to take it into the millions" to keep people from going public about his illness. "I have to put a stop to this onslaught, this barrage of attacks and of sub-truths", he said. Sheen was apparently first diagnosed roughly four years ago, but doesn't know how he contracted the virus.

While an HIV-positive diagnosis used to be considered a death sentence, and there still is no cure, medical advancements have helped turn it into a manageable illness.

In light of Sheen’s shocking revelation, the BBC has published an article which looks at just how far we have advanced in the global fight against HIV. The main findings of the article are set out below.

How common is it?

HIV is a virus that targets the body's immune system and can lead to Aids. It is estimated that more than 1.2 million people in the US are living with HIV, and almost one in eight of them are unaware they are affected.

The World Health Organization (WHO) puts the global figure at 35 million - with only 50% of people aware they have the virus.

According to UK government statistics, about 107,800 people in the UK were living with the condition in 2013 - 25% of these people are thought to be oblivious.

Are infection rates rising or falling?

According to a UN report, the annual number of new HIV infections fell by a third between 2001 and 2013, from 3.4 million to 2.3 million globally.

But they aren't falling everywhere. New infections in the US have remained at about 50,000 per year for the last decade - compared with 130,000 at the height of the 1980s epidemic.

How does HIV affect your life expectancy?

Today, a 20-year-old who is newly diagnosed and receives combination anti-HIV drugs can expect to live 50 more years. That compares to a prognosis of months or years back in the 1980s.

Much of the improvement is down to the discovery of antiretroviral therapy (ART), which prevents HIV from multiplying and reduces the amount of the virus in the body.

But 1.5 million people still died from HIV-related complications in 2013, and about 39 million people have died from HIV since the mid-1980s.

Is spreading HIV a crime?

People with HIV may be prosecuted for intentionally or recklessly infecting another person.

Any individual who has been deliberately infected with the HIV virus has the right to bring an application for compensation to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA). Victims will be able to claim compensation for the sexual assault leading to the deliberate infection. Additionally, the CICA do award compensation to victims who have been deliberately infected with Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C and compensation can also be awarded in incidences during which the victim has been deliberately infected with other sexually transmitted infections.

In certain situations, it is also possible for an individual to bring a civil claim for compensation against a person who has infected them with HIV.

Advancements in HIV testing and diagnosis

From 1 January 2016 a free HIV home-testing kit will be launched across England, with Public Health England (PHE) urging more people to check their HIV status.

According to PHE, 4 in 10 people in the UK are diagnosed late - meaning treatment may be less effective and the disease can be spread unwittingly.
The kit, which can be ordered online, involves a finger-prick blood test that is sent off to be analysed. Three to five days later, people are contacted with results. If the test suggests HIV is likely, patients are asked to attend a sexual health clinic for a confirmatory check.

Although it is promising to see continuing medical advancements in the detection and treatment of HIV, it must be questioned how safe and reliable it is to rely on a home testing kit for diagnose compared with making an appointment to see a qualified medical health professional in person. With increasing pressure on the NHS to cut costs, it seems that people are being increasingly encouraged to take matters into their own hands when it comes to their health, particularly at the initial diagnosis stage. NHS Choices and the 111 NHS non-emergency number are again examples of where people are arguably being discouraged from seeking face-to-face consultation in the first instance (see our previous blog on the potential dangers in relying on ‘Dr Google’ for more on this issue).

Clinical negligence claims involving HIV

Charlie Sheen’s public plight has certainly thrown HIV back into the spotlight. Despite advances in diagnosis and treatment, it is still important to recognise and take action in instances of negligence. There are a number of situations where a person might consider bringing a clinical negligence claim involving HIV, these include:

  • Failure or delay in diagnosing and treating HIV
  • Failures in management of pregnancy and labour of HIV infected mothers resulting in a baby contracting HIV
  • Receiving HIV infected blood, semen or organ
  • Receiving medical treatment from an HIV-infected person which leads to the infection of the patient
  • Errors resulting in incorrect positive HIV diagnosis resulting in psychological injury
  • Issues of confidentiality involving HIV patients and the use of their medical records which can have psychological consequences

Further information

For further information, please contact Katie Allard. You may also like to visit our Clinical Negligence and Personal Injury web page.

If you think that you have sustained an injury whether through an accident or clinical negligence and would like advice about bringing a claim, please contact the Clinical Negligence and Personal Injury team on 020 7814 1200.

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