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Can Cricket Save India and the Caribbean From HIV?

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Those cricket fans who watched the England versus India Champions Trophy final on sunday may have noticed small slips of red material attached to the players' arms, or to the sides of their caps. For those in the know, these were easily recognisable as the red ribbons of solidarity, the worldwide symbol associated with HIV.

The red ribbon was first introduced in 1991 as a means of raising HIV awareness at a time when people were dying in their thousands. Today, it is usually only seen for one or two days a year, around World AIDS Day. The fact that Indian and English cricketers wore the ribbon on sunday is therefore significant.

Think for a moment about two of the world's greatest cricketing nations, India and Jamaica. What do they have in common? First, of course, is a love of and passion for cricket. In these countries, reverence for players is intense. There is a second, sadder, bond, however: unknown to many, both countries are also currently being ravaged by HIV/AIDS.

India has amongst the largest number of HIV cases in the whole world, last estimated by India's National AIDS Control Organisation at 5.7million people. However, due to the enormous population of India, the prevalence - the share of HIV per head of the population - is not so very different to that of the UK, where 100,000 people are living with HIV. Conversely, the prevalence of HIV in Jamaica, at around one in every hundred people, is approximately ten-fold higher than in the UK, where our prevalence is just over one in every thousand. Indeed, Jamaica has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, with 1200 AIDS-related deaths per year.

So just imagine the influence and the reach that cricket players might have in the fight against HIV. After all, the other thing which these countries have in common is a difficulty of education. Here in the UK, many of my Jamaican patients talk about the extreme prejudice and stigma that exists towards those living with HIV/AIDS. And although we have a growing number of Indian patients, trying to raise awareness amongst the Asian population in the Birmingham area has been met with a further degree of disbelief and denial that HIV could possibly be a problem in their communities.

This lack of awareness has a real-world impact. In Jamaica, for example, there's a problem with undiagnosed late-stage HIV: in 2010, around 60% of all AIDS-related deaths had been diagnosed less than a year from the time of death. Similarly, a UNAIDS report of 2010 found wide variation in awareness levels throughout the various states of India.

Education is the silver bullet. With almost 60% of adults now aware of HIV testing, Jamaica has stabilised its epidemic - there are currently around 30,000 people living with HIV on the island at any one time, and that number is not rising (though nor is it getting smaller). Likewise, in India there seems to have been some significant success in promoting condom use amongst female sex workers. These are great starting points - but we need to do much more.

That cricket game at the weekend was being watched by close to 1.5billion people worldwide, according to the International Cricket Council [ICC]. It was slightly disappointing, then, that little to no mention was made of why the players were wearing those little bits of red cloth. Likewise, our own positive ambassador, Tom, was asked to escort the chairmen of the ICC and UNAIDS onto the pitch for the opening ceremony - and yet the television cameras panned from Alastair Cook direct to the end of the line, jumping over the heads of the HIV Ambassadors.

Understandably, HIV awareness is not a crowd-pleaser. However, if we are really trying to inspire change and to reduce stigma - to educate the public around HIV - then cricket, with its international profile and huge audiences, allows us a unique vessel with which to achieve this aim.

I'm therefore delighted to announce that Paul Nixon, the former England international cricket player, has agreed to be the first Cricket Saving Lives Ambassador. He has pledged to help us raise the profile of HIV within the sport, and encourage young people to think about their sexual health - and encourage HIV testing. In this way, maybe cricket really can save lives.

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