Thirty years ago today, a young man died in a hospital room in London with a mysterious new virus that nobody understood. Today and every day this year, 20 other people will contract that same virus in the UK, despite the fact that we now know how to prevent it and how to treat it. Why?
When Terry Higgins died in 1982, he was nursed by people in masks and gloves, because nobody knew how this strange new condition was passed on. His boyfriend wasn't told how he'd died because back then, gay partners weren't considered as next of kin. Yet it was that same partner and Terry's friends who gathered together their courage and anger and set up the Terrence Higgins Trust to help other people dying with what became known as AIDS. And 30 years on, we're still fighting it.
Today, we know exactly how the virus, HIV, which leads to AIDS, is passed on - and how it isn't. We don't have a cure, but we have treatments which will keep people alive to old age and allow them to have a family, hold down a job and lead a reasonable life. So why is HIV still happening, and why are some people still dying?
The simplest reason is, because people don't think it will happen to them. Of the 100,000 people in the UK with HIV, a quarter don't know, because they haven't tested. Some of them - some of you - will get sick and could die before you find out. Anyone who's had, or is having, unprotected sex should have regular sexual health checks. Go together with your new partner before abandoning the condoms. HIV, and many other STIs, can have little or no symptoms but still be transmittable. The majority of new HIV transmissions come from people who themselves are ignorant of having the virus.
The more complicated reason is, people are scared of HIV and the stigma surrounding it. So scared they'd rather get sick and die? Yes, in some cases; people are great at neglecting their health. "Don't Die Of Ignorance" is as good a slogan now as it was in 1985, back when the tombstone ads went out across the country. Except now we should be using it to persuade people to test for HIV; to get treatment and keep themselves well. Don't be scared of finding out if you have HIV; be scared of not knowing, of getting sick or of passing it on to someone you care about. Getting onto treatment won't just save your life, it will also protect others.
If you have got HIV, once you know, there's a lot you can do about it. You can stay healthy and plan for the future. Thousands of British people with HIV use myhiv.org.uk to monitor their own health, make plans, meet each other or just swap tips on managing their lives - it's Mumsnet for people with HIV. Living in the UK, you're a lot better off than someone with HIV in Dubai - who's likely to be deported or shunned - or the Ukraine, where treatments aren't always available and there's little help - or even the US, where the unequal health system means many people with HIV have a shorter life expectancy than in the UK. The biggest problem you'll face is prejudice and ignorance, and we can all do something about that.
There's no excuse in 2012 for people not knowing about HIV, but ignorance is still rife. In the last week alone, I've been asked "Can we let someone with HIV be a home carer?", "Can someone with HIV be charged with assault for spitting at someone?" and "Can I work in Iceland with HIV?". (The answers were "yes", "no", and "what on earth are you planning to do behind the freezer section?" - it turned out they meant the country, not the shop).
So do yourself a favour. Find out the basics at www.tht.org.uk, don't leap to conclusions and, as that old slogan went, Don't Die Of Ignorance - your own or anyone else's. Learn a little, live a lot more. Challenge ignorance where you find it. Keep yourself and your lovers safe and healthy, whatever your HIV status. And thanks, Terry, for the work your friends and partner started up in your name so that others didn't have to go through what you did. We're still here and we'll be here till HIV is harmless, or just a memory.
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