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World AIDS Day: Everything's Changed, Nothing's Changed

01/12/2016 08:29
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Thirty years ago, an ominous voice boomed out from every television set in the land.

John Hurt, whose unmistakable voice was synonymous with dread to anyone familiar with classic films such as Alien or 1984, said: "There is now a virus that is a danger to us all. It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure."

The government's AIDS campaign, famous for its imagery of tombstones engraved with the words 'AIDS: Don't die of ignorance', was not to everyone's tastes (one confused gentleman is quoted in the Sun saying: "I didn't understand it, it was too arty.")

But there was no denying its impact at the time. Every household received a leaflet in a sealed envelope marked Warning. If you weren't aware of AIDS before that, you certainly were then. Lives were saved because of this campaign.

Of course nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight, we might also trace much of the stigma around HIV back to this advertisement, now etched into the memories of my generation. Panic and paranoia had already gripped the nation and the perceived 'risks' were seemingly everywhere; toilet seats, cups, towels, hugs and kisses, even communion wine, nothing was safe in the public's mind. The addition of tombstones into the public psyche around HIV cemented the legacy of fear from the 1980s.

That was three decades ago and I am happy to say the landscape of HIV looks very different today. We now have incredible antiretroviral treatment for HIV which can suppress the virus to 'undetectable' levels, meaning the person is un-infectious. Science has shed light on how HIV is, and is not, transmitted. (Clue: it's none of the above.)

In many ways, for better or worse, society has moved on, as it always inevitably does. Life continues. The decades pass and people move on from the 'gay plague' that robbed a generation of their lives in the 1980s. Today, adults in their 20s and 30s would have no living memory of what happened. Indeed, only 14% of Britons are aware there is still an HIV epidemic in the UK, according to our YouGov survey, released today.

But what the general public does vaguely recall of that period, if anything, is the fear and mortality that was so evident in the iconic tombstone campaign. There has not been a major government campaign on HIV since those dark days, and so when we talk about HIV in 2016, most people's only point of reference is that haunting image of lilies being placed on a tombstone thirty years ago. Medically, everything has changed, but on a societal level, it can feel like nothing has changed.

The result is a dangerous combination of stigma and complacency, which perpetuates the HIV epidemic in the UK. These dual threats are all too evident in today's YouGov survey findings into public perceptions around HIV.

Released to mark World AIDS Day, Terrence Higgins Trust has published statistics which show that one in five people in Great Britain still think that kissing passes on HIV. Meanwhile 30% think that sharing a toothbrush with someone who is HIV positive can transmit the virus, and one in ten believe that sharing clippers at the barbers could present a risk. We are decades out of date in our awareness of HIV.

I can happily advise that it is impossible to get HIV from any of these situations. The virus cannot survive outside the body and is not transmitted through saliva. Not to mention the fact that those on effective HIV medication cannot pass on the virus anyway.

But the impact of these deeply entrenched myths - the flinches, the plastic gloves, the 'extra precautions' at the dentist when you disclose your HIV status - is humiliation. The sense you are somehow 'unclean'. And, in the worst cases, where ignorance is most severe, it can cause the end of careers, of relationships and even homelessness. (One in six people with HIV is living in poverty, while 20% of those newly diagnosed consider suicide in the first year).

But there is one day a year when that stigma seems to be temporarily forgotten: 1st December, World AIDS Day. Started in 1988, World AIDS Day is a global day of action when HIV is back at the top of the agenda, albeit briefly.

It is touching to see people on the tube, or newscasters on the TV, wearing red ribbons on this special day. As someone living with HIV, I feel affirmed, supported, and proud.

How people use this day is deeply personal. For some it's about celebrating how far we've come, for others it's a day to fight for the rights of people with HIV, and for me it's a day to remember.

Many of my friends from childhood, from school and from my clubbing days, are no longer here because of HIV. World AIDS Day is a chance to look back on them with joy - they added so much to my life.

But it's also a day to think about how far we still have to go. HIV no longer has to prevent people living normal, happy and long lives - but we know that it does. There is still no cure, and without treatment, people will die. Meanwhile HIV services are being cut, stigma is rife, and we're now facing the first generation of people to grow old with HIV. We can't stop now - it's not over.

On World AIDS Day at Terrence Higgins Trust, we're still fighting, still caring and still wearing our red ribbons with pride. It may be just one day out of 365 - but thank goodness we've got that one day.

www.tht.org.uk/worldaidsday
#ItsNotOver

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