Last month, I became the first MP to disclose in the House of Commons that they were HIV positive.
Of course, there were personal reasons for my decision to make such a public announcement, but my primary motivation was to help destigmatise the conversation around HIV and to point out the impediments we face in winning the fight against the virus. These impediments include the current British government.
HIV was a death sentence for the vast majority of people who contracted it in the 1980s and it is this horror that remains within our collective consciousness despite the fact that the reality of living with the virus has been transformed by medical advances.
Modern antiretroviral (ARV) drugs mean that, other than taking one pill every day, my life is no different to HIV-negative people.
The virus is undetectable in my body, which means I can’t pass on the virus to sexual partners.
PrEP, a pill taken daily, prevents HIV-negative people from contracting the virus (in the short term) and is further revolutionising the battle against HIV transmission. In San Francisco, a 43 per cent decline in new diagnoses in three years has been attributed to PrEP and in the Australian state of New South Wales, there was a 35 per cent decline in new HIV diagnoses over two years that corresponded with the rapid introduction of PrEP.
While Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people can access PrEP without limit, the Tory party has not granted the same rights to people with HIV in England. People, often gay men, who want PrEP in England can only access the drug as part of a “behavioural trial”, which is capped at 13,000 places and by region.
The government is replaying the same reactionary arguments that were once directed at women before the release of the contraceptive pill in 1961. If we remove the potential harm of gay men having unprotected sex, the thinking goes, who knows what they’ll be doing between the sheets?
Despite the dizzying progress, the fight against HIV is not over. We are off course to meet the sustainable development goal to end the epidemic by 2030. One million people die each year due to the virus.
This is because 25 per cent of people with HIV are not aware of it and two in five people with the virus cannot access the drugs, often because they are poor and marginalised. Similarly, despite progress, the rate of new HIV infections remains stubbornly high at almost two million annually.
I am fortunate to have access to life-saving drugs. This is largely because I am middle class, educated and live in a country with a public health system in the NHS and where the stigma around HIV and homosexuality is thankfully relatively low.
This is simply not the case for many people living with HIV. In Europe, HIV prevalence is high among gay men and intravenous drug users, communities which are often legally and socially marginalised. HIV infection has doubled since 2000 in eastern Europe amid rising drug use and unresponsive public health policy.
Women and girls are particularly vulnerable. For example, HIV remains the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age in sub-Saharan Africa. If they contract it, they often have less power to get treatment because social and economic barriers affect their ability to independently protect themselves. A lack of access to treatment keeps the virus alive and allows it to be passed on.
Lifting the patriarchy or eliminating homophobia or ending dangerous drug use are not going to happen overnight. This is why, despite their global potential, ARV drugs, PrEP and condoms will always be insufficient on their own to defeat the virus. We need a vaccine.
No infectious epidemic has ever been beaten without a vaccine so without one we will be fighting with one hand behind our back.
After more than a decade of research, in 2009, scientists developed a vaccine candidate that protected a third of people against HIV. That wasn’t considered good enough to be a public health success, but the trial was highly important for science – showing that a vaccine could be possible.
To the outside world, it appeared as though things went quiet after that breakthrough. But scientists have been working to refine the candidate and an updated version entered a large-scale clinical trial last year. Around the same time, another promising candidate – Imbokodo – also entered a large-scale trial. For the first time in over a decade two large-scale HIV vaccine trials are under way in Africa, whose scientists have been at the forefront of Aids vaccine research.
It is vital that international donors fund Aids vaccine research to ensure that we do not waiver on the most effective path to ending Aids. Vaccine development is always a long process, but when funding is cut, the process becomes further protracted which risks increasing donor fatigue.
While many scientists believe we are closer than ever to a vaccine, the donor community has pulled back. Britain’s Department for International Development, which has a laudable record of funding vaccine research, ended its funding for Aids vaccine development earlier this year. The hunt for a vaccine is highly dependent on aid money from the US, which is subject to the whims of the Trump administration, which has recently shut down a study using foetal tissue to discover a cure for HIV.
I am pleased something positive has come out of my status. But with enlightened public health policy, adequately financed research and development, and political movements that promote equality and social justice, there will be no need for HIV-positive people to make such disclosures. There won’t be any HIV-positive people to make them.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle is the Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown
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