Amol Rajan: This celebration is far more important than my own

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The Independent Online

Due to unbearable and incessant demand, I feel I must begin today by admitting that yes, it was my birthday yesterday and, since you ask, I remain happy to accept further gifts, indefinitely.

However, mine was not the most important birthday in the life of the nation. That accolade is better preserved for a charity called the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), which turned 30 yesterday.

When he died of Aids at the age of 37 in 1982, Terry Higgins was unusual, simply because so few people in Britain died of Aids back then. He breathed his last in St Thomas' Hospital and suffered terribly. Seeing the limited resources and research that Aids received and made suddenly aware of public ignorance of the disease, Higgins's partner, Rupert Whitaker, and friend, Martyn Butler, decided to launch a charity in his honour. Though it was made official months later, the THT attributes its birthday to 4 July because it was on the night of Higgins's death that the idea was born.

Out of grief and loss came hope and gain. Three decades on, the THT is the biggest HIV and sexual health charity in Britain. It has a staff of several hundred, calls on around 800 volunteers and does extraordinary work educating and supporting the public.

Perhaps the most inspirational of its associates is Norman Fowler, now Baron Fowler of Sutton Coldfield. Lord Fowler, whom I have never met but is a trustee of the Journalism Foundation, which is supported by the owners of this newspaper, is one of the most distinguished public servants in modern Britain. It is he, first as an exceptionally competent Health Secretary in Thatcher's government, who has done more than any politician to raise awareness of, and funds for, the fight against HIV/Aids. He is a trustee of THT, campaigns tirelessly and works smartly to improve treatment. A few months ago, for instance, he pushed in the Lords for a law to allow illegal immigrants in Britain to be treated for HIV/Aids. He is the sort of politician our main parties now demote: a bespectacled greybeard who gets things done.

Just over 30 years ago HIV/Aids was a taboo subject, almost completely misunderstood, and needlessly spread because of ignorance and stigma. Now knowledge is much more widespread, diagnoses are swifter, treatment has improved, and the stigma is greatly reduced. It turns out that, because of heroes like Norman Fowler, Terry Higgins didn't die in vain.