Andrew Williams had never heard of the word HIV when he tested positive. It was his mother who had forced him to go to the doctor where he got the diagnosis that he thought was a death sentence.
At that time he was in a wheelchair. It was the unbearable itching of his back that finally got him to get medical help but, he discovered, he not only had HIV but diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease.
That was two years ago. This week, as the 31-year-old joined Sir Elton John and Evening Standard and The Independent owner Evgeny Lebedev in Atlanta to witness the revolutionary new breakthroughs against the disease at the city’s Grady Ponce De Leon Centre, there was no need for a wheelchair. Nor, he now knew, was there any need for fear.
Within two months of starting the latest antiretroviral drugs, the virus in his body had become undetectable in his blood. Not only is he now healthy, partly due to the drugs and partly due to the healthy lifestyle adopted for his other illnesses, but he can virtually not pass the infection to other people.
He feels, he says, “reborn”. “I have a reason to live,” he explained, “and that is to help people who were like me – and to show you’re going to be OK.”
It was a message so stark in its optimism that it reduced Sir Elton to tears. He knows first-hand the realities of what, in the past, an HIV diagnosis can mean. When he started his Elton John AIDS Foundation in the US in 1992, it was because his friends were dying and he wanted to do what he could, anything that he could, to help.
“When we set up the Elton John AIDS Foundation we were delivering meals to people’s doors,” he said. “[The stigma meant] they would not go outside. We have come a long way.”
But part of the reason for his tears was not only happiness at Andrew’s story. It was also the knowledge that, despite all the advances that have been made, the fight is far from won – indeed, in some parts of the world, things are getting worse.
It is why he and Mr Lebedev had come to Atlanta to mark the first day of our Christmas Appeal, for that city, sadly, is one place where the situation is not only getting worse but, as those at the centre made clear, dramatically so.
In Atlanta, one of America’s richest cities and the home of such international corporate giants as Coca-Cola and CNN, if you are a gay black man in 2018 then, unbelievably, you still have a one in two chance of being diagnosed as HIV positive during your lifetime.
In the last few weeks alone, three people the centre were trying to help died because of Aids. The reason is that, not knowing their HIV status and terrified of the stigma that HIV can still bring in the city, they came to get treatment too late.
The latest figures show black Americans in the US accounted for 44 per cent of HIV diagnoses, although they are only 12 per cent the population. As many as 54 per cent of gay black men who are HIV positive are believed to not receive the right treatment. Three decades after the first antiretroviral drug was licensed to help in the fight against HIV and Aids, for some it remains an epidemic.
Sir Elton made clear his shock. “It started off as a disease of young gay men in the 1980s, affluent people in in New York, LA and San Francisco,” he said. “Now it’s a disease of the poor all across America, but especially in the South. People are being forgotten. That is a disgrace.”
It is why Atlanta is one of the cities being focused on as a recipient of this year’s Christmas Appeal. The money it raises will pay for those at risk to be able to get tested, and then will make sure they have access to the treatment they need.
At the centre, Sir Elton and Mr Lebedev tried out one of the most recent developments in testing. A simple swab, wiped around the mouth, that people can do for themselves without even needing to go to a medical facility. Sir Elton’s Foundation is in some parts of the world planning to make it available for free in supermarkets so there is no barrier to anyone getting a test when they want it.
“The simple fact is that in 2018 no one should be dying because of Aids,” Mr Lebedev said. “We have the drugs to control HIV. It is treatable. Today, any person, anywhere, dying because of Aids is a tragedy.
“That is why I am so proud that this Christmas The Independent and the Evening Standard will raise money to combat this epidemic. It is a time of year for helping others, and our appeal will do exactly that.
“Over the next few weeks, we will campaign to help those at risk of infection to access treatment. We will tell the stories of the people who have been forgotten. We will fight to make sure governments give the disease the attention it requires.
“Today I saw first-hand the damage HIV can cause. I spoke with people who had lost loved ones; I heard from others struggling to receive treatment. I want this appeal to prevent more people suffering so needlessly. That would be a real Christmas miracle.”
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