by Scott Ideson
Today, and 1 December every year, marks World AIDS Day - a particularly significant day for me. I'm a gay man. I live in an area where prevalence of those living with HIV is higher than anywhere else in the country. I'm also a student nurse with an interest in pursuing a career in HIV care in the future. It's with that in mind I write this blog and reflect on how far we've come over the years.
Whilst I wasn't about in the 1980s, those who were will remember what happened in the States amongst the queer community of San Francisco particularly. Hundreds of thousands of gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men were wiped out by a mysterious 'disease' that overcame the community. This was of course AIDS, and the start of something which would continue to kill millions of people around the world.
HIV/AIDS had such a disastrous effect for two main reasons:
AIDS was a new phenomenon. Men who had been healthy were suddenly dying from pneumonias, opportunistic infections and aggressive cancers - and US health authorities were noticing. On June 5th 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. This report is known as the official start of the AIDS epidemic that still afflicts the world today. It wasn't until 1987 that the first effective HIV medication was approved for use.
Stigma was huge. This was a time when gay and bisexual men were demonised for who they loved and homosexuality was already a taboo. Now many of these men's friends and those they held dear were dying around them - help and support for people with the virus wasn't forthcoming from society. Those living with the virus were discriminated against, ostracised and rejected by others, which meant many were too scared to 'come out' and access treatment.
We've come so far since then. For the most part anyway. People who are diagnosed early and receive treatment can live a normal life expectancy, due to leaps and bounds in medicine in the last 20 years. Many on antiretroviral therapy drugs are now 'undetectable' meaning their viral load of HIV is so small that they have a very small chance of becoming ill and a reduced risk of passing on the virus.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the stigma people who are HIV positive face. In Britain, people with HIV might not be evicted from their homes or denied the right to drink in certain bars but cultural and institutional discrimination does exist, as does a unhelpful and wholly unfair stereotype around people who are positive.
Just look at the shameful, archaic way the tabloid media reported Charlie Sheen's announcement last week that he was HIV positive. It was sadly all a bit too similar to stories that were splashed across newspaper front pages in the 80s.
That's why it was important for me last week to take a stand. In partnership with SH:24, at London South Bank Students' Union we organised a day of action for National HIV Testing Week. Armed with chocolate, condoms and facts about HIV, we spent the afternoon chatting to students, helping them sign up for free home STI testing kits. Whilst it was important that people signed up to be tested - after all that's what the week was all about - the real success story was how many students we managed to engage with around sexual health, including but not exclusively, those from high-prevalence groups.
Testing is important, however, it was vital we first addressed the barrier standing in the way of people getting tested. Stigma. I truly believe it's the challenge we must first overcome to combat the unfalteringly high rate of new transmissions in the UK.
It's important today, and going forward, to remember those who lost their lives to HIV. We've come far in terms of science, healthcare and societal attitudes but we still have some way to go. Let's make sure not one person died in vain. Let's all do our bit. Get tested regularly. Challenge stigma.
17% of those people living with HIV in the UK are unaware of it.
It's worth remembering that.
Scott Ideson is a student nurse and Nursing Officer at London South Bank Students Union. He's interested in youth participation, the charity sector and public health. You can read more of his writing on these subjects on his blog.