Cath Smith can vividly recall the moment she found out she had contracted HIV – eight months after having sex with a man who carried the disease.
‘My first thought was, ‘”I’m going to die”,’ she told FEMAIL about the moment she was diagnosed with a disease she associated with suffering and the rapid onset of AIDS.
‘Then I thought I was going to look like an AIDS victim – and then I realised ‘oh no, I haven’t even had the chance to have children yet’.’
But having now lived with the virus for more than a decade, the 47-year-old from rural Victoria retains the energy and drive to spearhead a campaign to prevent other women experiencing the same fate.
The reality of living with HIV today was nothing like the early years of the disease, when it rapidly led to AIDS and a harrowing death.
It was the time of famous Grim Reaper TV advertisements which did a good job of making Australians aware of the seriousness of the disease but which reinforced the long-lasting impression that HIV meant imminent death.
‘For nearly 40 years we have lived with HIV stigma and despite that for over two decades, HIV treatments have been effective in suppressing the virus,’ she said.
Cath takes just one pill each day which ensures she has ‘zero chance’ of passing on HIV.
However, the updated medications are not without their drawbacks.
‘We don’t know what the long term side-effects of the medications are going to be, because no one has been on them long enough,’ Cath said.
Another significant improvement in the fight against HIV and AIDS has been a decline in the number of gay and bisexual men – who make up the majority of cases – contracting the disease.
The rate of infections in that demographic fell by 11 per cent over the past decade but the number of heterosexual people with the virus remains stubbornly unchanged.