Our CEO Monty Moncrieff talks about World AIDS Day and the battle to end HIV stigma
World AIDS Day on December 1st each year has rarely felt so pertinent as it does in 2015. It feels like there’s greater discussion of HIV than at any time since our community was ravaged by the AIDS related deaths of the 1980s.
On the one hand it’s great to be talking about progress: advances in the bio-medical sphere mean we have new kit in our toolboxes to counter the spread of the virus. Effective anti-retroviral treatments mean those diagnosed with HIV can receive treatment that can lower the amount of HIV in the blood to an undetectable level, meaning they are extremely unlikely to pass it on. PEP offers protection after the event if a risk does occur, and the medication is accessed promptly. And trials of PrEP which can be taken by high-risk groups as an additional precaution have proved so promising that it’s now being offered in places like the USA and France, with pressure on the NHS in the UK to catch up and save further infections.
On the other hand the persisting stigma feels like it’s the 80s coming back.
The inaccurate and sensationalist reporting that heralded Charlie Sheen’s recent disclosure that he’s living with the virus show that our knowledge of HIV today remains mired in the ignorance and prejudice that accompanied the early days of HIV. A column in the Daily Mirror contained so much stigmatising content it prompted HIV charities to issue complaints to the publisher, and last week Nigel Farage was reiterating his anti-HIV rhetoric on the back of another group of easy scapegoats, claiming migration is causing a shortage of anti-retroviral medication, a claim NHS England were swift to rebut.
The prejudice against people living with HIV in underpinned by what seems to be a lack of understanding of what HIV means today. A survey by our friends at GMFA found that 49% of gay and bi men didn’t understand what being undetectable meant, and 44% of negative men wouldn’t have sex with a guy who was openly HIV positive. Even basic myths that should have been eradicated almost 30 years ago perpetuate with a survey for the National AIDS Trust suggesting awareness is getting worse, rather than better, with 1 in 6 people still believing HIV can be passed on by kissing.
Stigma and misinformation about the realities of living with HIV today are preventing people testing. 6,500 gay and bisexual men in the UK are living with HIV without even knowing they have it. Getting tested regularly allows you to take control of your health, and protect your sexual partners from unwittingly passing on the virus.
For someone who grew up in the shadow of the HIV tombstone in the 80s public health campaigns this poor awareness – and the ensuing stigma – is frightening. It suggests to me we need a whole new way of talking about HIV. It’s refreshing to see organisations like GMFA address stigma in their campaigns and to see public figures speak openly about living with the virus. At a time when public health budgets are under further squeeze we can’t allow the false economy of cutting prevention spend. Our prevention messaging needs nuance to speak to diverse groups about advances such as PrEP; about prevention for trans people; and about safer drug use to prevent HIV transmission through chemsex.
Let’s make this World AIDS Day count; let it be a turning point in our commitment to combat stigma, to educate ourselves in the realities of HIV in 2015 and beyond. Let's ensure our communities have accurate information on all aspects of HIV prevention, and our heath and care services are equipped to support those for whom they care. I commit to promoting these messages through London Friend's work; in our training for healthcare professionals, and in our information and support services for LGBT people. And I commit to using our voice to challenge ignorance and stigma.
World AIDS Day on December 1st coincides with Giving Tuesday, the international day of giving. You can support our work through giving your time as a volunteer or by making a regular or one-off donation. To donate quickly by SMS text LDNF15 £5 or LDNF15 £10 to 70070.