When Victoria Roscow gave birth to a healthy son, she and her husband were overjoyed.
It’s easy to see why. Little Harrison is a delight and now a smiley 19-month-old, toddling around the family’s well-kept three-bedroom home in Bolton, Lancashire. He likes ‘helping’ in the kitchen and no doubt enjoys the undivided attention of his besotted parents.
On the face of it, they are just like any other happy family. But when Victoria, now 29, was nine weeks pregnant, a blood test carried out as part of routine pre-natal care led to a shattering and utterly unexpected discovery. She was HIV positive.
Astonishingly, her husband Brad, 30, remains negative. And their baby boy is also negative, thanks to antiretroviral drugs Victoria took during her pregnancy. For Victoria, a graduate who is now a digital marketing executive, her life changed in a heartbeat.
‘The first thought I had was: ‘I’m going to die’,’ she said. ‘I felt sure it was a death sentence. That I would either have to abort the pregnancy or that Harrison would be born HIV positive as well. I thought it was just a dead end for both of us. I remember sobbing and sobbing.’
When Victoria Roscow gave birth to a healthy son, she and her husband were overjoyed
On the face of it, they are just like any other happy family. But when Victoria, now 29, was nine weeks pregnant, a blood test carried out as part of routine pre-natal care led to a shattering and utterly unexpected discovery. She was HIV positive
Today, as she sits in the family’s sitting room where her two framed degree certificates hang on the wall, the enormity of it all is still hard to fathom.
‘We had just had the first scan of the pregnancy,’ she said. ‘We were having a baby and we were so excited. Everything looked good. But then I was asked to wait behind. A consultant pulled me aside into a separate room. She sat me down and said that they had identified my platelets were very low and the reason was that I have HIV.
‘They asked if they could tell my husband and I said, ‘Yes, bring him in immediately. Tell him exactly what you’ve just told me.’ ‘
‘The first thing he did was grab my hand and said, ‘I love you. We’re in this together.’ But we were both completely shocked.
‘We were having these dramatic thoughts of ‘Has he got it? Did he give it to me? Did I give it to him? Where has it come from?”
Today, her perfect complexion, bright eyes and an abundance of immaculately-groomed auburn hair show no signs of a virus which, if left untreated, would progress to full-blown Aids and prove to be, in her words, ‘100 per cent fatal’.
Struggling to come to terms with news that was at first devastating, Victoria started making short videos where she talked about her feelings and posted them on the video-sharing site TikTok.
What once was a personal enterprise has now been viewed by millions of people online.
‘It went viral,’ she said, the irony of the word not lost on her.
‘I didn’t know any other women with HIV when I started it, so I was pleased to debunk some of the stereotypes around what is ultimately a manageable health condition.’
In scenes of cosy domesticity, Victoria broadcasts details of her condition to a core of 30,000 loyal followers. She is often seen talking in front of an antique Welsh dresser, which features shelves of leather-bound classic novels.
Astonishingly, her husband Brad (pictured), 30, remains negative. And their baby boy is also negative, thanks to antiretroviral drugs Victoria took during her pregnancy
Signs of a busy family life — the odd Waitrose bag or child’s bottle — can be seen in the background. Sometimes, she is putting on her mascara as she talks. Rather than a monologue, she also uses the videos to give candid answers to the many questions she receives online.
Is the baby definitely her husband’s? Yes.
Is there a risk of passing the virus to her husband or others? No, thanks to the three antiretroviral tablets she takes each morning.
But there is one question which has attracted more than a million views on Victoria’s TikTok: how did a middle-class, university-educated woman (including a masters degree in English literature from Newcastle University), contract HIV in the first place?
She said: ‘This is the question that has attracted the most views. And the answer is that when I was diagnosed, they said it looked like I contracted HIV within the past few years, based on the viral load [the amount of virus in the blood], which was fortunately so low a doctor memorably said it was ‘peanuts’. It meant I contracted it in a relationship before I met my husband, because he was fortunately negative. It’s harder for men to contract it from women than the other way round.
‘They asked me if I had had any weird viral symptoms in that time. I said, actually, yes, I was very ill with a mysterious pneumonia or mumps-like illness and I had these really strange rashes over my arms and my torso. I did go to the GP who said it seemed like mumps, the flu and an allergic reaction at the same time. They didn’t really join the dots.’
The precision of her diagnosis and the very specific time-frame meant she knew who had infected her. ‘I knew who it was,’ she said. ‘I had one partner in the specified time period.
‘It was a person I was dating. A regular relationship and I had unprotected sex at some point during that time. Nothing out of the ordinary and I have no clue how he got it.
‘People think that you must have done something weird or dirty or seedy or sordid to get it. But that’s not it.’
Far from it. Victoria had no cause to suspect that there was a particular risk and is confident that her ex had no idea that he had HIV and was therefore putting her in danger.
In fact, knowingly infecting someone through ‘reckless transmission’ is illegal.
It is clearly a painful part of her story but hard for her to feel anger towards her ex for passing on a virus that he didn’t know he had.
Nor is her behaviour any different from any number of women in fledgling relationships who rely solely on the Pill without taking further precautions against sexually transmitted diseases.
In 2021, the last year for which we have figures, 87,000 people were ‘accessing care’ for HIV in the UK, with almost exactly equal numbers of those who had acquired it via sex between men and heterosexual sex. Almost a third of those infected, however, are women.
Like any young couple, they took pride in building a life together, buying a house in a picturesque market town near Bolton and spending weekends scouring antique markets to furnish their home. Then, a planned pregnancy only seemed to add to their joy
While she doesn’t want to dwell on her ex, contact had to be made to ensure he was aware of his HIV status. She said: ‘I passed on his contact details and let the NHS deal with it because they can help get the person access to healthcare should they need it.’
A few months after their relationship ended, she met her husband Brad in 2018 through a dating app. The thoughtful musician was equally enthralled with Victoria and after two years together the couple married in September 2020 — a Covid wedding inspired by The Beatles music they both love.
Like any young couple, they took pride in building a life together, buying a house in a picturesque market town near Bolton and spending weekends scouring antique markets to furnish their home.
Then, a planned pregnancy only seemed to add to their joy.
Until, of course, Victoria’s life-changing diagnosis.
After the initial news, they took a journey to a clinic straight away for further tests. A heel-prick test confirmed Victoria’s HIV status while her husband’s test looked negative, albeit with a worrying shadow line.
They had to wait a further week for the blood tests to come back, during which time Victoria says they ‘hibernated’ at home waiting for the test results. Brad received his negative result in a text message, while a doctor rang Victoria to say that her viral load was low and that they had diagnosed her at a very early stage.
Victoria said: ‘My first thoughts were that I was dirty or that I was a lesser person, and that’s still very much the societal stigma of it. I had a lot of worries about being an HIV mum — if it changes how my husband thinks of me or what affect it would have on my child.’
They made harrowing phone calls to both sets of parents to break the news. While Victoria is too young to remember, her parents’ generation recalls the Government’s hard-hitting 1986 Aids awareness campaign showing tombstones emblazoned with the slogan ‘don’t die of ignorance’.
‘They were alive for Queen singer Freddie Mercury’s story and the 1980s ads on buses, so having their daughter diagnosed with this condition must have been very shocking,’ she said. ‘We decided to go down the scientific route. We told them I had been diagnosed with something. Here’s what the diagnosis means. Here’s how we treat it and here’s what the diagnosis is . . . it’s HIV. So we presented the health condition first and the stigma last.’
Victoria said: ‘My first thoughts were that I was dirty or that I was a lesser person, and that’s still very much the societal stigma of it. I had a lot of worries about being an HIV mum — if it changes how my husband thinks of me or what affect it would have on my child’
Next, the operation began to protect her unborn child.
Since those terrible early days of HIV leading inevitably to full-blown Aids and an often brutal deterioration, medical science has made huge strides in managing the disease.
Today, if a mother takes antiretroviral tablets throughout her pregnancy, she effectively suppresses the ‘viral load’ and reduces the risk of passing it on to her baby to less than one per cent.
In 2021, just 1.7 per cent of all those receiving treatment for HIV in the UK acquired the disease via what is called ‘vertical transmission’ from a mother to a baby either in the womb, during birth or via breast-feeding.
Victoria began the medicine immediately. She carried Harrison to full term and because he was breech he was delivered by emergency caesarean section. ‘All along, the doctors had been saying the medication is working, there is no risk to your baby,’ she said.
But seeing is believing. Within minutes of his birth, a heel-prick test revealed the result everyone was hoping for and the words Victoria had waited months to hear: ‘He’s negative.’
‘I was lying there with the anaesthetist. They had taken my baby off and then they gave me the good news.
‘It’s what I had been told all along, that he would be fine. But hearing it was very emotional.’
As a precaution he was given antiretroviral medicine, a Calpol-like solution, twice a day for two weeks.
Victoria is the first to admit that she struggled with ‘mum guilt’ after he was born.
‘When I was pregnant I suppressed all those feelings of HIV and motherhood just to focus on being healthy and giving birth to an HIV-negative child. That was the driving force of the pregnancy, but when he was born all this flood of emotion came through.
‘I couldn’t get over the fact he was having to have medication because of me. If I didn’t have HIV, he wouldn’t need it, and I struggled to reconcile that for a little while. They’re so little and helpless. He’s negative but he’s still got an HIV-positive mum. How’s he going to feel about that?
Today, if a mother takes antiretroviral tablets throughout her pregnancy, she effectively suppresses the ‘viral load’ and reduces the risk of passing it on to her baby to less than one per cent
‘But without having him when I did I might never have known I had HIV for years, so I do view him as my little saviour.’
For Victoria, the medication means the virus is ‘undetectable’ in her blood, which means she poses no risk to others.
Indeed, the couple are planning to have another child and Victoria’s medication means conception can take place naturally. It also means the risk to future children is negligible. But many people don’t realise that.
‘When I tell people I see them physically recoil. ‘Oh really? You? But you look so healthy.’ ‘Thanks,’ I tell them. ‘That’s because I am.’ It’s just a health condition that is easier to manage than diabetes.
‘There’s still this idea that it is a virus that mostly affects gay men. But when you look at the stats and demographics of people with the virus, it’s a very equal split between heterosexuals and gay men. I always say that HIV doesn’t discriminate — but people do.’
Online, she has had people call her ‘dirty’ and far worse. She brushes it off as ignorance.
What is harder to comprehend is the ignorance that still exists among health professionals.
Alarmingly, she now realises that she was unknowingly HIV positive when she went into hospital to have her appendix out in recent years.
‘There’s increased testing in A&E, which is good. But I find it baffling that there’s no testing before surgery. I went into surgery and there was no test. I wasn’t offered any HIV testing for the entire week I was in hospital, so nobody knew.’
All the more reason, then, for her bid to raise awareness.
This week she will help launch a campaign by ViiV Healthcare, a global specialist HIV company, to reduce stigma ahead of World Aids Day on Friday.
The goal is to reduce HIV transmissions to zero by 2030. Her online platform will surely help get the message out there.
Internet stardom aside, Victoria is just like any other young mum.
Testament to her mantra that those living with HIV are leading happy and fulfilling lives with no health concerns, there is another big event happening for Victoria next month: she turns 30.
‘I’ll be going to a soft play on my 30th birthday,’ she said with a smile and a slight eye roll.
Yet Victoria will enjoy every minute, all the while celebrating her ‘little saviour’ — the baby whose mere existence averted the biggest health crisis of her life.