People living with HIV across the UK have been incorrectly sent text messages from Public Health England (PHE) telling them they need to ‘shield’ for 12 weeks. The messages were sent in the run up to the Easter weekend and informed the recipient that long-term isolation is needed putting those living with HIV in the most severely at-risk groups, such as those with severe lung and heart conditions and some cancer patients. The NHS Coronavirus Service alerts states: ‘Your condition means you are at high risk of severe illness if you catch coronavirus. Please remain at home for 12 weeks unless a healthcare professional tells you to leave. You will get a letter from the NHS to confirm this.’
Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) and the British HIV Association (BHIVA) released a joint statement which said: ‘We are currently investigating who received these messages and why this has happened. In the meantime, BHIVA has contacted all members and added a message to the BHIVA website to reassure people living with HIV that they are not at any greater risk of COVID-19 [because of their HIV]. BHIVA and THT recommend that only people whose immune system is known to be very weak as shown by a CD4 count of less than 50, or who have had a serious illness due to suppression of the immune system in the last six months, should be encouraged to follow the shielding advice’.
Alan Spink, local HIV caseworker with the Sussex Beacon whilst being interviewed for this magazine described the situation as ‘a mess’. ‘They [PHE] have not admitted the error. It is possible they have texted thousands using the NHS Flu-Jab list but not everyone on that list as had a message and not everyone living with HIV has a suppressed immune system so we do not know exactly who they have contacted.’
This wasn’t the first time that PHE has been accused of unnecessarily generating anxiety among the HIV positive community. Early on in the crisis it put out guidance calling on over-70s and people with weakened immune systems, including those with HIV, to strictly socially distance themselves from others.
BHIVA criticised this guidance as reflecting a lack of evidence in classifying all people with HIV as vulnerable. Dr Michael Brady of THT issued a statement contradicting PHE and confirming that not all people with HIV are considered at increased risk. ‘Those on HIV treatment with a good CD4 count and an undetectable viral load are not considered to have weakened immune systems.’
He went on to state that he would advise that a ‘good CD4 count’ means anything over 350 and added: ‘As long as your viral load remains undetectable, your CD4 count will be as good.’
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