HIV storyline in UK TV soap Hollyoaks changing perceptions

In UK TV soap Hollyoaks the character Ste has been be diagnosed with HIV in a sexual health storyline. This is first time a British soap has featured a gay character living with HIV. Following a night of unprotected sex with a stranger, Ste has tested positive for the virus. The long-running storyline will follow him as he manages the condition and will show the effect it has on his marriage, children and his physical and psychological well-being. David Rowlands highlights reaction to Ste’s situation based on his monthly online poll and points out the realities beyond the headlines.

‘The HIV storyline is being handled very well with sensitivity #Hollyoaks’

Our January poll showed that 96 per cent of respondents thought this storyline would break down stigma and engage young gay men to get tested for HIV.

Matthew Hodson from GMFA, the UK’s leading charity dedicated to gay men’s health, said, “What’s great about the Hollyoaks storyline is that it’s helping to generate discussion about HIV and sexual risk, particularly among younger people.”

Research with focus groups in London showed that: “younger gay men thought that HIV was unlikely to affect them personally, so this storyline may help many people to see that HIV remains a pressing concern,” added Hodson. “Although Eastenders and Emmerdale have had HIV+ characters before, Ste is the first gay character in a soap to be living with HIV. Gay men are still the group most likely to acquire HIV within the UK, so it’s refreshing to see this reflected on a soap opera. I hope that by showing a well-liked character come to terms with his HIV diagnosis, Hollyoaks will be able to counter some of the myths and misrepresentations of HIV that contribute to stigma.”

‘Great showing how quick and easy an HIV test is #Hollyoaks’

When a rapid HIV test is performed, it can give a result within five minutes. It uses a ‘finger prick’ sample of blood. The test checks for the immune system’s reaction to HIV only (antibody). It will detect most infections within six weeks of exposure to HIV. Like all tests it can rarely give a ‘false reactive’ result. This happens about seven times in every 1,000 tests.

Public Health England has the UK’s leading experts in the performance of HIV tests. They advise that there is no test available guaranteed to pick up 100 per cent of HIV infections before three months. If you want to exclude HIV infection, they advise you to test now and retest three months after any recent exposure.

‘So glad #Hollyoaks hits these hard storylines for younger people – HIV is something that needs a greater understanding! Well done’

Hollyoaks is in a unique position to be able to talk directly to millions of young viewers and if the safe-sex message is not coming through education, it is possible to promote key messages both on screen and through media platforms.

‘#Hollyoaks is sending such an important message, not just for young gay men but for anyone who may not have an up-to-date understanding of HIV’

More men become infected and test positive between the ages of 25 and 29 than in any other age group. Lots of young men have HIV but think they don’t and more men are testing positive than ever before. All this makes protecting yourself and others with condoms as important now than ever.

‘Treatment can stop HIV from being passed on. But thousands have HIV and don’t know it #Hollyoaks’

As many as 8 in 10 gay men who get HIV get it from a man who doesn’t know he has it himself. Around 8,000 gay men in Britain have HIV but don’t know it. Many have picked up HIV recently and are very infectious. On average you die 10 years earlier if you’re diagnosed late and don’t start treatment on time.

‘Emmerdale has gone cold now with the Val storyline. It will be interesting to see how #Hollyoaks develops Ste’s character living with HIV’

Following many years of medical research resulting in the development of effective treatment for HIV, the majority of people diagnosed in the UK can now anticipate a very good prognosis and long life expectancy.

Effective treatments for HIV have resulted in the disease being considered chronic rather than acute, but many people have challenges to their health, access to social care and financial security and the older person living with HIV faces significant challenges.

John, 24, from Preston, recently diagnosed: “People are not being properly informed about HIV. I didn’t know anything until I got diagnosed and I had a very different opinion to what I have now.

“I hope they make his character be open about his condition because again it will hopefully have an effect on the younger generation for safe sex and awareness that HIV is very much around and that you can’t just tell by the way people look.”

Alex, @birdy_tweet, 29, from Manchester, diagnosed five years ago: “One of the writers from Hollyoaks called me at the end of August last year. We spent about half an hour chatting about my diagnosis. I went through the process, the types of test they use, how you’re likely to receive the results, but they were also really keen on capturing the emotional side: how I felt at the time, what was going through my head.

“Both the script and Kieron Richardson really encapsulated those numb feelings combined with the chaos of a million thoughts in your mind at once. They’ve done a great job, and the HIV community seem to think so too, I just hope now the story has an impact on young gay men and encourages more of them to get tested.”

Jim, 45, from Brighton, diagnosed 22 years ago: “I thought the way they led up to the test was good; it really expressed their feelings and thoughts exactly how I felt when I was diagnosed.

“I had to wait two weeks for my results. I was scared, daunted, thoughts rushing around my head. What if this? What if that? These feelings don’t change, regardless of how far HIV medication has come or how much people know about HIV. Stigmatisation and discrimination is alive and kicking and the most acute fear, apart from ‘how will I manage?’ is ‘What will other people think?’

“It also depicted two people going through it together and the commitment of each other and the implications of further afield, family, kids etc. However there was no talk about further counselling, or support; it showed them standing in the waiting room devastated, this might have been for impact or it might follow in the storyline. Support and counselling is vital from the start as he can’t fight this on his own.”

Poll data

A total of 146 responses were given between 1-27 January 2015 with data collected via online hosting at and social networking sites.

I would like to thank the contributors and the community for their input into this article. February’s poll will be examining the issues around consent to sex while high on drugs, or #ChemSex. Vote here

About the author:

David Rowlands is the director of, delivering effective healthcare communications to professionals and patients.

His key objective is to design, develop and deliver community projects to enable people living with, or affected by, HIV and/or Hepatitis C (HCV) to become better engaged with their treatment and care.

Working over a number of media platforms, across the public, private and third sector, he is able to establish a link to these sometimes hard-to-reach communities.

Contact David on Email: Website: Twitter: @DR_tweetUK

Have your say: To what extent can a soap storyline educate the public on a health issue?

Read David Rowlands’ previous poll feature:

HIV and Hepatitis C poll results