If we redouble our efforts, we can end the HIV epidemic by 2030
An HIV diagnosis has gone from being a near-death sentence for sadly far too many to a manageable condition. It is critical with cuts to the UK aid budget that our action on global health is not lost.
A few years ago, I was honoured to be joined by the then speaker John Bercow, and the lord speaker Norman Fowler, himself the influential former health secretary in those early days of HIV/AIDS, in hosting a display in Westminster Hall of the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt – which memorialises approximately 384 people from all around the UK who lost their lives to the devastating pandemic. Little did we think at the time, that we would face another devastating pandemic with such tragedy in due course.
But like many young people growing up in the 1980s, I didn't fully understand the devastating impact HIV was already having on millions of lives. Seeing the infamous tombstone advert like so many others – I was simply scared.
That fear and the unknown is at the heart of a ground-breaking new Channel 4 series – It’s a Sin. Like each of the panels of that AIDS Memorial quilt tells a story – this masterpiece by Russell T Davies, tells similar but different stories of a number of people devastated by the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the UK.
The series consistently demonstrates how rife with panic, fear, shame, and silence the AIDS epidemic was for so many gay and bisexual men
Through the incredible cast, we finally have a truly British reflection of the pain experienced by those coming from socially conservative communities, whether in South Wales, Glasgow, the Isle of Wight or the British-Nigerian community.
The series consistently demonstrates how rife with panic, fear, shame, and silence the AIDS epidemic was for so many gay and bisexual men. A combination of the real social and financial repercussions attached to seeking assistance — alongside the lack of available information.
The APPG for HIV and AIDS has worked hard on a cross-party basis since early days of the epidemic to fight for policy and perception changes on this devastating disease. From campaigning on awareness, stigma and treatments in the early years, to PrEP, testing and support for marginalised communities, and global aid more recently. We have repeatedly fought for action from Ministers here in the UK and globally – working with a strong team of MPs and Peers, many with specific expertise in public and global health.
The scientific advances in HIV treatment and prevention have been some of the biggest seen in modern medicine. An HIV diagnosis has gone from being a near-death sentence for sadly far too many to a manageable condition, where people living with HIV can enjoy a normal life expectancy.
Even more remarkable, we can now say with absolute confidence that someone on effective HIV treatment cannot pass on the virus to their sexual partner: Undetectable equals Untransmittable.
And globally – thanks to the investment from countries, including the UK through our aid in the UN Global Fund, and research through IAVI into vaccines, we are seeing millions more receiving anti-retroviral treatment and testing. It is critical with cuts to the UK aid budget that this focus on global health, currently rightly in focus due to the devastation of Covid-19, is not lost.
Here in the UK, 106,000 people are now living with HIV. 94% of people are diagnosed and 92% of those are on effective treatment. In 2019 there was another drop in new diagnoses, with gay and bisexual men seeing rates plummet by nearly 50% since 2014. But that same progress is not happening across other groups, with slower reductions among women (who make up a third of people living with HIV in the UK) and BAME communities. Other groups continue to be marginalised such as sex workers, and injecting drug users. And stigma still blights the lives of far too many.
The publication of the influential HIV Commission report for England – welcomed and endorsed by the current secretary of state for health – found new efforts in tackling the virus in the devolved administrations have been critical in recent steps forward. The HIV Commission report makes clear that without a redoubling of efforts, we risk missing this once-in-a-generation opportunity to end the HIV epidemic - and stop new infections by 2030.
The epidemic has changed a lot since the tragedy of the 1980s, particularly here in the UK. But globally in 2019, 1.7 million people were still newly infected, and nearly 700,000 died needlessly from AIDS-related causes.
Unlike those early days of fear and misinformation depicted in It’s a Sin, we know exactly what we need to do.
Members of the APPG will continue to work on a cross-party basis raise awareness and pressure to ensure we now achieve what would have been unthinkable at the time It’s a Sin’s tragic story is set.
Stephen Doughty MP is Labour MP for Cardiff South and Penarth and chair of the APPG on HIV and AIDS.