If Nigel Farage’s comments that migrants living with HIV should be refused access to the UK have shown anything, it’s his total lack of understanding of where the epidemic is in 2014.
Back in the 1980s, when understanding of HIV was in its infancy and the virus spread across the globe unchecked by the modern medication we now have, some governments put entry bans in place as a protectionist measure. However, the UK never closed our borders to people living with the virus, and that is something we should be proud of.
As the epidemic has evolved, and our understanding of HIV has improved, these historic laws restricting the movement of people with HIV have come to be regarded as draconian and stigmatising. According to the World Health Organisation, they are also ineffective. Thirty years on, some of the countries that once implemented bans now have larger epidemics than our own.
In 2010, the US finally repealed their entry ban. Shortly afterwards, China and South Korea followed suit. For the UK to buck this trend, knowing everything we do about the virus, would make us a public health laughing stock.
If Mr Farage were to look at the evidence, he’d see the UK epidemic is not being driven by migrants. It is being driven by the one in five people with HIV across the country, the majority of them born here, who remain undiagnosed. That’s roughly 22,000 people who aren’t accessing the daily treatment that can bring down the level of virus in their body to a point where modern medicine considers them non-infectious. It’s also 22,000 people who may not be using condoms, usually because they don’t think HIV applies to someone like "them”.
This "othering" has hampered prevention efforts throughout the epidemic. The belief persists that HIV is something that only affects certain groups, or those in other parts of the world.
We need to get the message out there that HIV does not discriminate. It doesn’t say anything about who you are as a person. It is a virus that affects people of all ages and backgrounds, and from every walk of life. People with HIV are doctors and teachers, artists and engineers, mothers and mentors. Mr Farage may take note that they can even be MPs.
The best way to tackle HIV in the UK isn’t to put up fences, but to encourage people to come forward for testing. If someone is diagnosed in good time, they can have a full life and a near-normal life expectancy. By marking people with HIV as "other", Mr Farage is fuelling that insidious stigma and fear that prevents too many people from testing until it’s far too late.
To suggest that people living with HIV can not make a contribution to our country, that somehow their “quality” is diminished, belies a style of thinking more suited to 1984 than 2014. It was incorrect then, and frankly it’s insulting now. For someone who styles himself as the future of British politics, Mr Farage’s opinions on HIV are a museum piece and belong in the past.
Rosemary Gillespie is Chief Executive of the Terrence Higgins TrustReuse content