Inside Positive Voice with Amalia Manolopoulou
Amalia Manolopoulou is the Office Coordinator of the association Positive Voice for the city of Thessaloniki (on Egnatia street). She led me through the history of Positive Voice, and the activities that volunteers and associates organise to raise awareness about HIV positivity and safe sexual practices.
Positive Voice is the HIV-positive Patient Association. While in Thessaloniki the offices opened their doors for the first time on the 11th of March 2014, the headquarters were established in Athens in 2009 . In Thessaloniki, Positive Voice is a counselling where the activists raise awareness on STDs (Sexually transmitted Diseases) and their relevant cures. The association opened a prevention centre too, where it is possible to get tested for free for HIV, the so called Checkpoint. Also, together with Prometheus, the Liver Patient Association, Positive Voice provides free tests for Hepatitis B and C.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (or HIV) is a virus that attacks the immune system and in particular the white blood cells by destroying them and leaving the body of the patient unable to defend itself from infections and diseases. It may take many years before the first symptoms become manifest. For this reason, the only way to detect the virus well in advance is by getting tested. A person is considered to be HIV-positive when the anti-HIV antibodies are found in the blood sample. By starting the antiretroviral therapy on time, the patient avoids reaching the advanced stages of the HIV infection, which leads to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (or AIDS). The sooner the person discovers the infection, the higher are the chances to reduce the impact of the virus on the body.
Many misconceptions and fears revolve around HIV and AIDS to this day. Through its constant work, Positive Voice advocates to raise awareness on the topic. If by getting tested people find out to be HIV-positive, they can start to take care of their own health and suppress the virus load with the anti-retroviral therapy (ART). Moreover, they won’t transmit the disease to the partner.
I Love My Checkpoint
Currently, Positive Voice is implementing its 4th campaign for raising awareness on HIV positivity and on its prevention. These campaigns are meant to spread the word and promote the testing procedure in the local community with a special focus on vulnerable people. The message the organisation hopes to share is that getting tested is free of charge, fast, reliable, and anonymous.
Positive Voice response to COVID-19
During the 1st wave the office remained closed for two months. However, the contact with the benefiaciaries was granted through the phone. The newly gained ”free” time was seen as an opportunity to do some research and engage a more strict collaboration with the headquarters in Athens. By that time, the organisation started collecting food and other aids for the vulnerable groups of the society, like sex workers and homeless people.
Once the 2nd wave hit, the doors of Positive Voice and of the Checkpoint reopened in order to attend the needs of those groups of the society who are exposed to an high risk of infection (among these there are sex workers and intravenous drug abusers). HIV is a virus that is contracted through blood, seminal and pre-seminal fluids, vaginal fluids, anal mucus, and breast milk. Therefore, the most common ways to get infected are unprotected vaginal or anal sex and the shared use of injection drug equipment. As explained by Amalia, it is not a matter of gender identity nor sexual orientation, but of sexual practices that in some cases can put in danger the health.
What happens after booking an appointment to get tested for HIV at the Checkpoint of Positive Voice?
On the day of the appointment, the staff will welcome the beneficiary within the counselling. Filling a questionnaire and talking with a specialist is part of the routine, of the so called Risk Assessment. The questions that will be asked concern some basic personal data, the medical history and the sexual behaviour, while another section is dedicated to the use of drugs and alcohol, if relevant. It is very important to bear in mind that for reliable results it is required to wait three months from the sexual activity that put the beneficiary at risk of contracting the HIV.
One of the rooms where the counselling takes place
The blood sample is extracted from a fingertip and the whole process takes about 3 minutes. In case the results show that the person is HIV-positive, the association supports the person through the process that leads to the begin of the anti-retroviral therapy. The first step is to address him or her to the National Health System.
Positive Voice benefits from the expertise and the assistance of associates directly related to the Public Health System, of scientific supervisors, and of psychologists. They can visit the patients out of charge or at a beneficial price, and stand by their side during the therapy.
Moreover, in the direct experience of Positive Voice peer support is considered a very effective additional aid for HIV-positive patients at any stage of their therapy.
Plans for the future
As Amalia reported, the office in Thessaloniki of Positive Voice is working on a new project: the Red Umbrella, a day centre. In Athens it is already opened and is intended for sex workers. Here they can be tested against STDs, receive counselling or legal advice. In addition to this, it is a place where to get some rest, relax with board games, receive beauty services, or enjoy arts. There’s also the possibility to set up a bazaar. It is entirely run by volunteers and peers. One of the biggest challenges for the centre in Thessaloniki is to find a structure that may be funded by the municipality.
Save the dates!
Positive Voice activists participate in festivals, lectures in educational institutions – especially in High Schools – where they lead interesting discussions with the active participation of the audience. «HIV concerns all. From every walk of life, so these stereotypes break once you raise awareness and educate people about HIV», explains Amalia.
The association organises meetings during the «spotlight days», such as the 1st of December – the world AIDS day or the 13th of February for the Condom day.
With the aim of widespreading within the local community free tests, the association runs every year 2 testing weeks: one in May and one in early November.
A message of hope
Getting tested is a choice, but the consequences impact the safety of the beneficiaries and of all the people around them. In Amalia’s words, «You have HIV and you can still live the rest of your life: once you start the therapy, you will suppress the viral load. This means that you no longer transmit it sexually. It has been scientifically proven and that’s why we have U=U, “Undetectable equals Untransmittable” [this is the name of the informational international campaign] moreover, you are no longer at risk of shifting into the syndrome, the AIDS. Once you know this, everything is much clearer to anybody. It means that you have nothing to worry about if you come in contact with a person living with HIV, even sexually. In that way, there are many couples having children who are completely healthy. Everything has changed. We are not in the 80ies anymore, when people were suffering, agonizing and finally dying in very harsh conditions, in terrible pains and look. Thanks to science, this is a nightmare of the past, and thanks to activists for taking actions for their lives».