Cllr Philip Normal is a councillor in Oval ward, and Vice-Chair of the South East London Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee.
Each year when the 1st of December comes around, we open that first door of our advent calendar, a symbol of looking forward to something. For many though, the 1st of December marks a time to look back and lament on those that we lost too soon. World AIDS Day is a time for us to remember and honour those that we lost to the AIDS virus, but also – just like with our advent calendars – it is about looking forward, to a time where we end new transmissions of HIV.
So much has changed since I was diagnosed as HIV+ in 2005. I was diagnosed at the Victoria Clinic for Sexual Health, which later became the Dean Street Clinic. The clinic is a part of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, and has pioneered research and care for people living with HIV, and at the same time has become a beacon for the medical advancement in treatment.
In the 14 years since my diagnosis, I have seen attitudes towards HIV change a great deal. But despite this, there is still so much misunderstanding. A recent study released ahead of this World Aids Day found that more than 30% of people won’t shake hands with someone with HIV, and only 31% of people knew that undetectable means untransmittable: This simply means that being HIV+ and on medication, you cannot pass on the virus, a position I am lucky to find myself in. We are failing as a country to get the message across that people living with HIV can live perfectly normal lives.
What is even more shocking, is that it is overwhelmingly young people that are not being informed about the basics of HIV. And that needs to change. We have to tackle young people’s perception of HIV. Only then will be able to eradicating the virus all together, ending new transmissions. We have a responsibility to protect them and teach them how to protect themselves.
The tools that will allow us to stop new transmissions and eventually stamp out HIV altogether already exist, but they are not readily available across all of the UK. PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) comes in the form of a pill which is taken once a day and protects users from contracting HIV during sex. PrEP is currently available in the UK, but in England it is only available on a limited trial basis which means not everyone has access to it. Without full rollout it is the at risk groups, people living in poverty, those at risk of sexual exploitation, and those that are lacking in knowledge of HIV, that we are letting down. Not only could we save people from contracting HIV through the full rollout of PrEP, but we could also reduce the costs of HIV on the NHS as prevention is far cheaper than the cost of treatment.
A fully funded PREP programme should form part of multi-pronged approach to wiping out new infections. Along with promoting safe sex, getting tested so you know your status, promoting online testing, reducing the stigma so people get tested in the first place, and educating our young people so they have the tools to look after their sexual health properly.
Everyone should be educated about the realities of HIV, young and old alike. The stigma around HIV has a huge mental health impact, something we have the power to avoid through better funding and community partnerships, highlighting available services.
The national perception of what it is like to live with HIV is not reality, and we cannot afford to go backwards in people’s understanding. The next generation don’t have to live with this, let’s give them that power and let us look forward to opening our advent calendars on a future 1st of December in a world where HIV and AIDS does not exist.
Cllr Philip Normal