A recognised health issue for the last 30 years, there have been enormous strides taken in HIV treatment since the 1980s. Mostly driven by the increasing range of effective antiretroviral therapies (ART), which lower the amount of HIV in your blood to "undetectable" levels. As a result there is almost no risk of HIV being passed on.
It is because of ART that HIV is now an entirely manageable health condition. "Undetectable" women have a very low risk of passing on HIV to their babies. New-borns at risk are given their own short course of the treatment to further reduce their risk of developing HIV, and they undergo a series of tests during the first 18 months of life.
The success of ART led to exploring it as a prevention method (or PrEP) – could using HIV therapy before sex reduce risk of HIV transmission? In February this year, the UK based PROUD study reported that PrEP reduced the risk of HIV infection by 86 per cent for gay and other men who have sex with men (MSM), when delivered in sexual health clinics in England. PrEP is a game-changer and it is desperately needed in the UK as part of our strategy to defeat HIV.
Last week, French Minister of Health, Marisol Touraine, announced that PrEP will be made accessible throughout the country from 2016 with public funding. The results of two studies - PROUD UK, and Ipergay in France, were considered when making the decision, and used as proof to demonstrate the effectiveness of PrEP as a vital HIV prevention tool.
This is such a huge step forward for European HIV prevention, but a disappointing indicator of where our own government is at. It says a lot that a UK study has, in part, swung the decision for French access, and we are still begging for it here at home.
Though we have achieved great changes in HIV treatment and potential prevention, harder to advance it seems are attitudes to, and public understanding of, HIV. A recent Terrence Higgins Trust snapshot poll, revealed that 90 per cent of people who are living with HIV in Britain think that the public can not differentiate between HIV and Aids. It coincides with the #StopStigma effort that the charity is engaging in today, for World AidsDay.
Also released today, People Living with HIV Stigma Index 2015 survey – the global study of the impact of stigma – found that stigma had prevented 15 per cent of people surveyed from accessing their GP in the last year, and 66 per cent had avoided dental care. 14 per cent had received negative comments from healthcare workers. Whilst most people’s GPs were aware of their status, only half felt in control of that disclosure, and the scores were far lower for dental practices.
Those that Terrence Higgins Trust polled were asked for words, unprompted, that they had heard used to describe their health condition. ‘Aids’, ‘diseased’, ‘unclean’, and ‘riddled’ were among the top four cited. Just a couple of months ago broadcast journalist Kay Burley referred to Dean Street sexual health service as an "Aids Clinic", and was unapologetic.
HIV and Aids are not the same thing. Aids is unlikely to develop in people who have been treated in the early stages of HIV infection.
And what of the vile comments during this year’s election campaign from Nigel Farrage? He said that immigrants with HIV should not be able to use the UK healthcare system and conjured up "statistics" in an attempt to defend an unjustifiable point. His claim is completely without evidence and not based on any fact at all. Outrageous.
The respondents to our poll chose an up to date 21st century public information campaign, and universal testing – making HIV testing the norm in NHS settings, as two important efforts to stop stigma. The latter is already used successfully at St Thomas’ Hospital London – one of only two in the entire country who test for HIV as standard in A&E departments.
At Terrence Higgins Trust, we would add a third item to the list – Sex and Relationships Education (SRE). Stigma is manifest in behaviours and attitudes. If we want to achieve comprehensive behaviour change, we need to begin as young as possible. Young people should be given clear and detailed information about the risks of HIV, but also be informed on how living with HIV in the UK has changed, and that it is now an entirely manageable health condition.
For today we can achieve something simple. Change your Facebook or Twitter prolife with this and #StopStigma or tweet a picture of you wearing your red ribbon with the same. Lets stand together, today, of all days and #StopStigma.
Shaun Griffin is the Executive Direct External Affairs for the HIV/Aids charity the Terrence Higgins Trust
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