Chris Smith praised for HIV revelation

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Gay rights campaigners have praised the former cabinet minister Chris Smith after he revealed he has been HIV-positive for the past 17 years.

Gay rights campaigners have praised the former cabinet minister Chris Smith after he revealed he has been HIV-positive for the past 17 years.

Mr Smith, who decided to go public in an attempt to combat prejudice and ignorance about the virus in Britain, is expected to play a part in the campaign by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to persuade the world's richest nations to do more to tackle the Aids crisis in Africa.

The former culture secretary told The Independent he hoped to play a role in encouraging the world to address the problem. He said: "We need to tackle the poverty and injustice that gives rise to the grossly differential prospects for people living with HIV in the heart of Africa and in the West.

"Priority number one is to make the drug treatments that can keep people alive, healthy and stable available as widely as possible. Number two is to identify a vaccine to prevent the spread of the virus." Mr Smith discussed his announcement with Downing Street before making it and the Chancellor is keen to enlist him to his drive for a £10bn-a-year programme to find an Aids vaccine. Nelson Mandela, whose comments about the stigma of HIV and Aids after his son died from Aids this month persuaded Mr Smith to make his statement, will be in London this week to urge G8 finance ministers to endorse Mr Brown's "Marshall plan" for the world's poorest countries.

Mr Smith said a lot of progress had been made in Britain since he became the first MP to "come out" 20 years ago, but there was still "quite a lot of prejudice around about HIV" even though it was "just like any other illness".

He hoped that other people with the condition would speak about their HIV status but stressed: "It is entirely up to them, particularly with something that really is personal and private to them.

"If newspapers started digging around to find out about people's health condition and so on, I think that would be a retrograde step and would reflect badly on them as journalists."

Lisa Power, the head of policy for the HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust, said it was "extremely important" that Mr Smith had spoken out. "Hopefully this will help a lot of people who haven't been diagnosed yet and those that are too afraid to have tests," she said.

"There is still a great deal of prejudice and ignorance surrounding HIV. Many people with the condition are still too scared to come out and often they won't tell their employers or their fellow employees because they are scared of what they may think. But it is possible to live with HIV and you can lead a normal life."

Peter Tatchell, of the gay rights pressure group OutRage!, said: "It is great Chris Smith has come out as HIV-positive but I am surprised it has taken him this long, especially given he came out as gay way back in 1984 and that never did any harm to his political career. I hope other prominent public figures with HIV will follow Chris's lead. The more people who are out about being HIV-positive, the sooner we will help break down ignorance and stigma."

The Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, who is standing down at the election, said he did not tell Mr Blair about his condition in 1997 because his performance would not be affected. "I thought about it but I was perfectly healthy, there was no reason why I was not able to perform, there was no threat to my health or my ability to do the job. I thought: 'No, I've told just a very few close friends and that's how I'm going to keep it.'"

LIVING WITH THE VIRUS

Improvements in HIV treatments mean it is possible to live a relatively healthy life for years before contracting full-blown AIDs.

Early detection is a crucial factor in life-expectancy, so treatment can begin before irreversible damage sets in. The standard treatment in the west is now highly active antiretroviral therapy, or Haart. Those taking treatment, like Chris Smith, have to take pills every day, but it means they are able to hold down demanding jobs. It is important to eat well and to stay fit. Mr Smith has done both.

Over two decades, he will have had to change the combination of drugs taken. Even when the drugs are well adhered to, resistance creeps in and new ones are needed.

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