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    An Eastenders guide to HIV and PrEP

    Hard-hitting storylines are commonplace in British soap operas, with writers not shy about raising awareness of important issues that are prevalent in real life. Shows such as Eastenders and Coronation Street have tackled storylines regarding topics such as domestic abuse, acid attacks, cancer, racism, sexism and much more. Recently Eastenders, one of the most-watched soap operas on British television, has taken on the subject of HIV and PrEP HIV medications such as Emtricitabine/Tenofovir (Truvada). In this article, we will explain exactly what the storyline is about, and more information about HIV and PrEP as a medication.  

    Who is Zack Hudson in Eastenders?

    Zack Hudson is a character in the British soap opera Eastenders who was introduced in March 2021. The character is portrayed by actor James Farrar. In the soap, he is the son of Gavin Sullivan, the half-brother of Sharon Watts and the uncle of Dennis and Albie Watts. In the last two years of appearing as a regular character on the show, he has had storylines including a secret relationship, a murdered great-aunt, an unwanted pregnancy and most recently an HIV diagnosis. His HIV diagnosis came after he shared steroid needles with another character. 

    What does Zack's HIV storyline on Eastenders aim to raise awareness of?

    Zack’s storyline is being used to raise awareness for HIV as a whole. The BBC worked alongside the Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity with an aim to accurately reflect HIV diagnosis, treatment options and implications, as well as to raise awareness of HIV in general. According to the Terrence Higgins Trust, following the episode that saw Zack being given his positive diagnosis, there was a 75% increase in the number of people accessing HIV-based information on their website.

    How did Zack contract HIV on Eastenders?

    In January 2023, a character named Brett Nelson appeared on Eastenders as an old friend looking for Zack. It was revealed that Zack and Brett used to take steroids together when they were younger and that they used to share needles. Brett was looking for Zack to tell him that he was HIV positive and that Zack should get tested. Zack gets tested and is in fact HIV positive. 

    How can HIV spread?

    HIV can be spread in a number of different ways, including by the sharing of needles. The other ways that HIV can spread are via unprotected sexual contact involving someone carrying the virus with a detectable load, blood transfusions involving infected blood and pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. People that are exposed to these factors are considered to be at high risk of contracting the virus. 

    How did Zack tell Whitney that he was HIV positive?

    Whitney Dean is a character that has appeared in Eastenders since April 2008 and has been played by Shona McGarty for her duration on the show. Whitney and Zack had a one-night-stand together that resulted in Whitney becoming pregnant, this was prior to Zack knowing he was HIV positive. After learning of his diagnosis Zack decides not to tell Whitney that he is HIV positive as their unborn baby is having health problems. After they lose their baby, Zack tells Whitney that he is HIV positive but that doctors told him it had nothing to do with their baby's illness. He does this as the two talk about becoming a couple and trying for another baby. 

    Has Zack passed HIV on to other people on Eastenders?

    At the time of writing no other characters have been diagnosed as HIV positive after contracting the virus from Zack. There are however a number of characters that could have the virus based on activities they have undertaken with him. The list of characters that could be HIV positive include:

    • Whitney Dean (One-night-stand)

    • Sam Mitchell (One-night-stand)

    • Nancy Carter (Previous girlfriend)

    • Janine Butcher (One-night stand)

    Due to the nature of the virus, this could also mean that other people have contracted it from the names mentioned above including:

    • Mick Carter (Husband of Janine Butcher)

    • Ricky Butcher (Previous boyfriend of Sam Mitchell)

    Is it possible to contract HIV from sharing needles?

    In Eastenders, Zack contracted HIV after sharing steroid needles with an old friend called Brett. Sharing needles is a common way that HIV is spread from person to person. It is the most common method of transmission for those that regularly inject drugs using dirty or shared needles. 

    Can HIV be passed on from a mother to their baby?

    Yes. HIV can be passed on from a mother to their baby. HIV can be passed on from a mother to her baby during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. This is known as mother-to-child transmission or MTCT. The risk of this is highest during pregnancy and breastfeeding however the virus can be transmitted during pregnancy.

    Can HIV transmission during pregnancy be prevented?

    Yes. It is possible to prevent HIV transmission during pregnancy. The main goal is to get the viral load of the mother down to undetectable levels. This is known as viral suppression. This can be achieved by using medication to bring down viral load. The primary medication to do this is a class of antiretroviral drugs. These medications work by inhibiting the replication of the virus in the body which allows the immune system to recover and prevent any further damage. This can help to suppress viral load to undetectable levels.

    Can an HIV-positive person go on to have a child?

    Yes. It is possible for a person with HIV to go on to have a child although it is important that they take the necessary precautions to minimise the risk of transmitting the virus to both their baby and their partner. One way to help with this is by using antiretroviral drugs to reduce viral load, and to use PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) to help protect an HIV-negative partner during conception. 

    What treatment does Zack's character get prescribed for HIV?

    After Zack was given his positive HIV diagnosis he was then told about treatment methods. As HIV is no longer a death sentence there are a number of medications that can effectively manage the virus. In Eastenders, Zack was told about reducing his viral load, as well as PrEP medications.

    What drugs are available for HIV-positive people?

    When you test positive for HIV it means that the test has detected the presence of HIV antibodies in the blood or saliva. Your healthcare provider will be able to provide you with the medication that you need to help manage your condition to reduce your viral load to undetectable levels. 

    What drugs are available for HIV-negative people to prevent HIV infection?

    In order to prevent an HIV infection, those who are at high risk should use PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) in order to effectively protect themselves from HIV. This includes those who regularly inject drugs or share needles and partners of people who are HIV positive.

    What is HIV PrEP?

    PrEP, which stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis, is the most commonly used medication by those who are needing to prevent HIV infections. It can be used alongside other HIV medications to help control an existing HIV infection or for pre-infection. It helps to reduce the chances of contracting HIV for those at the highest risk.

    What medications does PrEP contain?

    PrEP contains two medications that work in combination to help effectively prevent HIV infections. The two medications used are emtricitabine and tenofovir. These two medications are both known as NRTIs. Emtricitabine/tenofovir is also found under the branded name 'Truvada'.

    How does PrEP work?

    PrEP uses medications known as NRTIs. NRTIs work by inhibiting reverse transcriptase, an enzyme in the body that HIV needs in order to replicate. By restricting HIV from replicating you will be protecting yourself against infection. The two NRTIs that PrEP contains are called emtricitabine and tenofovir. 

    What is the typical dosage of PrEP for HIV?

    The dosage of PrEP that someone will take will depend on their own individual condition and what their healthcare provider thinks is best for them. It will depend on their personal kidney function, any other medical conditions they may have, as well as how well you respond to the treatment. It is very important that you use PrEP with any other HIV medications you are using. 

    How many straight people are living with HIV in the UK?

    A common misconception regarding HIV is that it only affects men who have sexual relations with other men. As Zack’s story in Eastenders shows, anyone can contract HIV. In fact, in 2020 the number of new HIV cases in the UK in heterosexuals (49%) overtook the number of new cases in homosexuals (45%). 

    How can I get tested for HIV?

    There are four types of HIV test available. These are blood tests, point-of-care tests, home sampling kits and home testing kits. If you want to know if you can get a free test with the NHS you can check your eligibility here. You can also get tests through the Terrence Higgins Trust. 

    Who is the Terrence Higgins Trust?

    The Terrence Higgins Trust is the leading HIV and sexual health charity in the United Kingdom. The trust campaigns for HIV and sexual health, and also offer services relating to these topics. The charity’s main aims are to end the transmission of HIV in the UK, to end the stigma and discrimination around HIV and to promote good sexual health.

    How can I get in touch with Terrence Higgins Trust for support?

    If you want to get in touch with the Terrence Higgins Trust for support with HIV or sexual health issues, please visit their contact us page. 

    How can I donate to the Terrence Higgins Trust?

    To donate to the Terrence Higgins Trust, please visit the THT website.

    Where can I buy PrEP online?

    You can purchase PrEP emtricitabine/tenofovir (Truvada) online from UK Meds. Simply select your medication, complete our free online consultation that checks whether PrEP HIV is right for you and, when approved, select your delivery method. 

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