Today marks World AIDS Day. It's a moment to pause and remember the 39 million people who are no longer with us but also to reaffirm our commitment to curbing the spread of HIV. This year has seen some sections of the media wake up and realise that HIV isn't a virus that has been cast to the history books, only to resort back to commentary not seen since the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s when it was revealed Charlie Sheen was HIV positive. It's vital there is a discourse on HIV, but one based on evidence and fact.
Like many people who have been subject to sex education in school, there was little information about HIV, how it was transmitted or what it meant if you were diagnosed. My only fleeting interaction with the topic was a screening of a film about US teenager, Ryan White, who died of AIDS in 1990 and resulted in the creation of treatment programmes for those diagnosed with HIV. When the film finished my entire class was aghast at the number of lives that were lost to AIDS but as little information was provided about HIV in contemporary society, we were left to conclude it was no longer an issue that we needed to be concerned about.
There have been continued efforts to make sex education compulsory within our schools but arguments over the right of parents to opt-out their child of lessons continue to prevail. The international evidence is there, in Finland and the Netherlands, sex education has been compulsory for years, with the latter having some of the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy in the world. For LGBT students the picture is even worse, as a recent study showed that one-third of secondary school teachers have not discussed any issues of sexual orientation in the classroom. We run the risk of yet again leaving an entire generation disempowered when it comes to understanding how to keep safe when having sex, including fully understanding what HIV is.
It would be unfair to place sole blame on teachers for not providing us with the full facts around HIV, or sexual health more generally, as young people's opinions are often shaped by external factors outside of school such as the media or parents. If we look at our media however, the recent reporting on the announcement by Charlie Sheen that he was HIV positive touches upon the continued need to address stigma. News of a celebrity being diagnosed with an illness would rarely make it to the front pages of a newspaper but due this ignorant belief that the person who acquires transmits HIV is to blame, will never help us breakdown the fear and misconceptions associated with HIV.
In 2014, the National AIDS Trust found that 16% of people incorrectly believed that HIV could be passed on from kissing someone. Even more concerning was that 7% of the public could not identify one of the ways in which HIV can be transmitted. These are very basic facts and yet there are still significant gaps in public knowledge.
This year's Public Health England figures have shown that more than 18,000 people across the UK who have HIV remain unaware of their status. Without improved education and understanding, getting more of us tested will continue to be a challenge.
We have reached a point of real major innovation when it comes to HIV treatment. The vast majority of people who are diagnosed with HIV go on to lead normal and healthy lives. High profile studies on the effects of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), have shown that it may be possible to fully protect gay and bisexual men from being infected with HIV in the first place.
As welcome as these advancements in medical knowledge may be, there still remains no cure to HIV. This virus which has cut across generations, nations and communities is still a major public health concern. As a bisexual man, I am one of millions of people who officially remain at risk of HIV. I know through being informed I can protect myself through practicing safe sex and having regular check-ups. For wider society, knowing the facts on HIV isn't just about keeping us as individuals free from the virus, it's about ending the stigma attached to those who live with HIV.
We are fortunate that for the most part, World AIDS Day is no longer about life or death but it is about realising our next challenge. A challenge that utilises education to both inform wider society people about the virus but also to empower people to make informed choices about sex so we can end future transmissions of HIV, forever.