“One in five had completely avoided sexual relations after their diagnosis”
Hello, Galit Andersson, who recently defended a doctoral thesis at the Department of Public Health Sciences, Karolinska Institutet. For your thesis you conducted large surveys of transgender people and people living with HIV in Sweden to assay their quality of life.
What were your most interesting results?
“People living with HIV generally rate their quality of life rather high. But many of them still feel that there’s a stigma related to negative attitudes towards people living with HIV, and that this creates a negative self-image that undermines their wellbeing. Mental health is an important health issue for many people and in our research we found high rates of hopelessness.”
“In our study of transgender people, we found that quality of life and self-rated health were lower in those who’d encountered ignorance or prejudice when dealing with healthcare professionals. People who wanted to change legal gender but who, for whatever reason, hadn’t done so, also had poorer health and quality of life.”
What surprised you?
“That one in five participants of the HIV study had completely avoided sexual relations after their diagnosis out of fear of being rejected or shamed. This despite the fact that most of them had known about their HIV for 10 – 15 years and that over 95 per cent of all people living with known HIV-infection in Sweden are under very effective treatment and cannot transmit the virus.”
What do you think should be done, given your results?
“We must continue to inform the public about what it’s like to live with HIV today – that the treatment is so effective that people can generally live a long, quality life. This will help reduce the stigma that comes from ignorance and hopefully improve wellbeing among people living with HIV. It’s also important that the health services can meet the group’s need for psychological support and sexual health information.”
“Since the number of people seeking change of legal gender or gender-affirming medical interventions has increased, the same holds true for transgender people. It’s vital that the public are well-informed and that medical staff treat them with respect. I also think that the possibility of making it easier to change legal gender should be looked into. At the moment the process is a long one and linked to which gender-affirming treatments someone is undergoing. Maybe it would help matters if it was a purely legal process.”
How did you get into this research field?
“Before becoming a doctoral student, I was a research assistant at KI, and that piqued my interest. The Global and Sexual Health research group was working with HIV and sexual health and I had the opportunity to work on a large survey of transgender people’s health. Both groups have seen many improvements, in terms of both policy and medical treatment, so I became interested in what their health looks like today and what factors influence it.”
What will you do now?
“I’m now an investigator at the Public Health Agency at a unit that works with HIV prevention and LGBT health. It’s great that I can continue with the same kind of issues that I did my thesis on.”