AN ONLINE chat service is available for people living with or affected by HIV.
Solent NHS Trust, which provides sexual health services in Portsmouth and the surrounding area, has launched its new HIV chat.
Stigma still acts as a barrier and this is something we are working to break down by continuing to enhance our digital offering.Debbie Zimmerman
It comes as about 1,500 people are living with the condition in Hampshire.
Roughly 500 of those are in Portsmouth.
The service, funded by Public Health England, is believed to be the only one of its kind in England.
It gives people who are diagnosed as HIV positive or those affected by it the chance to speak to an HIV clinical specialist.
The user is given confidential clinical guidance, counselling and signposting over the course of the chat.
Debbie Zimmerman, head of Solent’s sexual health services, said: ‘We are piloting this online secure chat facility to enable individuals who are struggling to come to us due to reasons such as distance from a sexual health clinic, stigma or fear, to receive essential service support.
‘But support they can get from the comfort and security of their home using a mobile phone or computer.’
It is believed an estimated one in four people with HIV go undiagnosed.
The fight against the condition has been hampered by late diagnoses and the reluctance to come forward to get tested or talk about it, due to perceived stigma.
Ms Zimmerman added: ‘For many communities, even talking about HIV can be very difficult.
‘Stigma still acts as a barrier and this is something we are working to break down by continuing to enhance our digital offering.’
Ms Zimmerman said the online facility has not been developed to replace existing services but to provide an alternative safe platform.
HIV Live Chat has been added to existing online services offered by sexual health services, including online tests for STIs and HIV and access to condoms through the ‘condoms by post’ service.
Ms Zimmerman added: ‘We want people to feel at ease however they choose to access our sexual health services.
‘We recognise that for some, this means first talking to us about their HIV worries in a way that they feel comfortable, and for others it may just mean that they don’t need to walk into a clinic.’
The service is being run as a pilot by Public Health England and is offered Monday to Friday, between midday and 2pm.
There are plans to extend this to other times of the day.
It is a partnership with Positive Action, an HIV charity working across Hampshire that has extensive experience of the needs and concerns of people living with HIV after providing specialist services since 1995.