It's World Aids Day, but Where are the Ribbons?

01/12/2011 13:21 GMT | Updated 31/01/2012 10:12 GMT

It's World Aids Day today and the red ribbon is its symbol. But today, on Britain's high streets, there is little sign of many red ribbons, despite there being a greater need for awareness of HIV and Aids than any time since the disease's peak in the 1980s.

Today there are around 91,500 people in the UK infected by HIV. According to the HPA, "The annual number of infections acquired within the UK... has almost doubled [between]...2001 [and]...2010, and exceeds the proportion probably acquired abroad." More than 3,000 gay men were diagnosed with HIV last year - the highest ever annual figure. 10 in 11 gay men in London, and 1-in-20 nationwide, are living with the virus.

Just as infection rates are reaching new highs, awareness is dipping alarmingly. 1 in 5 people who attend sexual health clinics turn down an HIV test and half of the 6,600 cases of HIV diagnosed last year were diagnosed after drug treatment should have started.

World Aids Day should be a way of raising awareness. At the moment, it's failing to do this. I work in central London and have only seen a handful of people wearing the ribbons today. According to the World Aids Day site, ribbons are available in 'MAC stores'. Why aren't they being sold in the big supermarkets, newsagents, bookshops and chemists? If we are serious about raising awareness, we should be serious about raising awareness beyond the already aware.

Public policy has a big role to play. Policy makers need to consider reforms that will ensure that those most at risk are tested and need to recognise that the danger of HIV is as large today as it was in the 1980s. A Unicef report showed that knowledge of HIV and Aids amongst young people in particular has declined and that many people have difficulty accessing sexual health services, experiencing difficulty making appointments and long waiting times.

The 'Don't Die Of Ignorance' marketing campaign was one of the most powerful advertising campaigns of recent decades. It was shown in every commercial break. So many people still remember it today. Two decades on, awareness has fallen and ignorance has risen. The work done by the powerful advert has gone into reverse. It's clear that raising awareness of both the risk of HIV and the availability of testing is particularly important today.

The statistics for HIV amongst gay men are particularly shocking and some of the pressure groups also have a real awareness raising role to play. A survey for gay professional networking group 'Jake' showed a hugely worrying amount of unprotected and casual sex amongst the gay community in London. Of the 1,500 people who responded to their survey, 48 per cent said they had unprotected sex with strangers and barely half had been tested for HIV over the past year. Gay pressure groups, such as Stonewall, which have done such tremendous work pushing the gay rights agenda over recent decades, have a responsibility to help turn around the rise in HIV amongst gay men.

Today should be a real day for awareness raising and should mark the moment when policy makers, pressure groups and health professionals take stock of recent trends in HIV cases and consider new measures to tackle the disease. They should be considering ways to improve awareness, prevention and access to testing and ensuring that the problem is seriously addressed.