HIV: A future in the history books?

Everyone got a bit excited when Prince Harry visited Burrell Street to take an HIV test last week. Scott Ideson writes on what contribution this could have to the future of HIV prevention in the UK.

You, like me, might have been surprised to find something as you scrolled through Facebook last week.  Not just Theresa May reappointing Jeremy Hunt as Health Secretary in her new cabinet or your adult friends putting themselves in precarious situations in the hunt for lucrative virtual Pokémon, but at a member of the Royal Family getting an HIV test broadcast live on social media.

Prince Harry hears about Guys and St Thomas' NHS trust innovations

Prince Harry hears about Guys and St Thomas' NHS trust innovations

For those of you missed it, our very own handsome and charming Prince Harry popped across London and down to Guy’s and St Thomas’ Burrell Street sexual health clinic in Southwark on Thursday to grab himself an HIV test. Prince Harry met with Sexual Advisor Robert who carried out a rapid HIV test, which with a single finger prick delivered Harry a negative result in just a few minutes.

Now Prince Harry isn’t the first member of the Royal Family to champion HIV. His late mother Princess Diana led the way in the early days of the AIDS crisis, famously kissing the cheek of a HIV-positive patient at a hospital in East London, a profound gesture in a time when many were too frightened to even touch a person with HIV without wearing gloves in the fear of “catching AIDS”.

Often wearing a red ribbon, she raised money and changed minds, all the while empathising with those living with HIV. She worked tirelessly in front of the cameras and behind the scenes and in 1991 became patron of the National AIDS Trust. Her compassion towards those affected brought her iconic status among the queer community who were some of those tragically worst affected.

Stigma still consumes too many people’s minds primarily because of the stereotypes and typecasting history has left behind.

With this in mind, I couldn’t help reflecting how far we’ve come in the 30 or so years since the emergence of HIV. Has that much really changed? Yes, on the surface. But without having to dig too deep, I might argue not. With advances in medicine and science, HIV is no longer a death sentence and those who are diagnosed and start treatment early can live full and healthy lives. However, stigma still consumes too many people’s minds primarily because of the stereotypes and typecasting history has left behind.

In a time when HIV diagnosis rates are on the rise and 17% of HIV+ people are unaware of it, we all need to be part of changing attitudes. Prince Harry believes his generation needs to take leadership in the fight against HIV or risk losing the gains of those who've come before, and I couldn’t agree more. If we are to change anything, we all need to challenge ignorance and address fears so everyone knows their HIV status. Along with honest and inclusive education and awareness-raising, normalising testing is part of the solution.

It might be easy to discredit the sincerity of a seemingly small gesture and cynically put it down to good PR, but the impact of Prince Harry being tested for HIV is a statement that cannot be underestimated. HIV testing needs visibility, and with 2.3million views on the Facebook live stream and coverage from news outlets across the word, it’s definitely achieved that. 

If Prince Harry can do it, we all can

If Prince Harry can do it, we all can, right? In the words of the red-headed Royal: “Gay, straight, black, white – even ginger, why wouldn’t you have a test?” He’s right, of course. Imagine where we could be by the time Prince George grows up? One test at a time - HIV could well be resigned to the history books.

Scott Ideson is a student children's nurse at London South Bank University. He's interested in HIV in a care and public health context; as well as youth participation and the Eurovision Song Contest. He campaigns against austerity and for a more equal society.

If you live in Lambeth or Southwark you can now pick up SH:24 test kits for chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV via click and collect from Burrell St Clinic - pop by to talk to the team.