Many of you know that I lost my best friend to AIDs 9 years ago, I decided in his last days the best way to honour the best friend I could ever of asked for was by trying to do all I could to make sure we beat this disease, that we end the stigma he faced and that we stop people from knowing the hurt I’ve carried.
I’m proud today to bring you this interview with the Terrence Higgins Trust on HIV/AIDS and the fight for PrEP.
What is HIV?
HIV stands for ‘Human Immunodeficiency Virus’. It is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system – the body’s defence against diseases.
How many people does it affect in the UK?
In 2014 there were 103,700 people living with HIV in the UK. 1 in 6 people with HIV remain undiagnosed and unaware they are living with HIV. In 2014, 3,360 men who have sex with men (MSM) were newly diagnosed with HIV – the largest number ever recorded.
Who are The Terrence Higgins Trust?
Terrence Higgins Trust is the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity, offering support, information and advice services for those living with HIV and affected by HIV or poor sexual health. Our vision is a world where people with HIV live healthy lives free from prejudice and discrimination, and good sexual health is a right and reality for all.
What is PrEP?
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), involves taking HIV drugs before sex to prevent HIV infection. It’s a highly effective prevention method and has been described as a game-changer in our approach to HIV prevention. When taken correctly, PrEP has proven to be 100% effective in stopping HIV negative people from contracting the virus.
What is the campaign about?
HIV organisations across the UK, including Terrence Higgins Trust, are calling for PrEP to made available on the NHS for those at highest risk of HIV. Currently PrEP, the game changing HIV prevention tool, is only available privately to those who can afford to buy it online and to those on the PROUD trial, which will start to come to an end in July.
But surely prevention is better than cure?
Absolutely. At the moment the NHS spends fifty times more on treatment than prevention. We’ve been well educated about condom use for decades; our knowledge and understanding of HIV has grown immensely, but there are still people falling through the net. PrEP, alongside condom use, is another way to stop HIV transmission.
If transmission from one person to another can be stopped by PrEP does that have a drastic effect on transmission rates overall as there isn’t a chain of transmissions created?
PrEP has the potential to be this generation’s defining moment in the fight against the HIV epidemic. We now have a powerful arsenal with which to end HIV: condom use, regular testing, treatment leading to the virus being undetectable, and PrEP.
A few reader questions now . . .
Does our sex education policy need to change, PrEP can only be part of the fight ?
Absolutely. Terrence Higgins Trust are campaigning for Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) to be mandatory in all schools. Currently it is only mandatory in state-run secondary schools, which means academies, free schools, private schools and primary schools are under no obligation to provide SRE. We also know that the current government guidance on SRE is based on out of date information, published 16 years ago, and that over a third of schools do not provide good quality SRE, according to Ofsted. If SRE is made compulsory in all schools, it means there will be proper up-to-date guidance for schools, teacher training and more communication across education. Standards can be driven up and we can reflect real life in our classrooms.
What’s needed now is mandatory SRE in all schools, which includes LGBT issues and gender identity, and provides teachers with the training they need to deliver it.
To put some context on how important PrEP is, how many people could benefit from it?
2,500 men who have sex with men (MSM) are infected with HIV each year in the UK – this figure has not changed in a decade. We are calling for PrEP to be made available to those at highest risk of HIV, which includes MSM and trans women.
How has the denial of PrEP by NHS England been responded to?
On 31st May, NHS England confirmed it will not commission PrEP. In their statement they said they did not ‘have the legal power’ to commission PrEP. HIV organisations, activists, Charites, individuals and MPs expressed their disappointment and anger at the decision, with Ian Green, CEO of Terrence Higgins Trust saying its was a “shameful day for HIV prevention”.
Since then National AIDS Trust (NAT) have launched a legal challenge to the decision and for the first time in the history LGBT Pride in London HIV and sexual health charities and organisations marched together under the banner of #United4PrEP.
There is a huge stigma around HIV/AIDs, how can this be tackled?
Incredible medical progress has been made in the last 20 years and people living with HIV who are on effective treatment can now live long and healthy lives. However attitudes and awareness of HIV haven’t kept up with medical progress.
The devastating impact of HIV stigma cannot be underestimated – it is a well known barrier stopping people getting tested and onto treatment, as people fear reactions from friends, family, colleagues and their community, should they test positive.
Terrence Higgins Trust works to stop HIV stigma and bust myths around HIV which can reinforce untrue stereotypes. Terrence Higgins Trust provides services such as counselling, peer support and THT direct helpline for people to access if they have been stigmatised.
What are the biggest myths about HIV/AIDs?
Since the 1980s, thankfully a lot’s changed when it comes to HIV – but myths and stigma still exist. There are many myths about HIV still around, such as you can get HIV from a toilet seat or women living with HIV can’t have children – these are not true. Terrence Higgins Trust recently did a blog post busting some the myths around HIV.
How will the recently announced cuts to services and clinics affect people?
By cutting public health budgets in-year by £200 million, the government has put enormous pressure on local authorities to make significant savings. Worryingly these savings are surfacing as cuts to services for people living with and at risk of HIV, and there is now a sector-wide national campaign to ‘Stop HIV cuts’.
In South London, three boroughs with the highest prevalence of HIV in the country are facing cuts to their HIV support services. A local resident of Lambeth living with HIV, Thomas, set up an online petition against the proposed cuts and is working with Terrence Higgins Trust, which currently provides the support services, to challenge the cuts and to ensure the voices of people living with and affected by HIV in these areas are heard.
People can take action on this campaign to stop HIV cuts by writing to their local council leader making the case for HIV support services and asking what the council’s plans are for these services.
We’ve talked about the Hows, whats and whys, but how can my readers help the fight for PrEP?
The support we have received so far in our campaign for PrEP has been fantastic. We urge people to get involved and add their voice to the calls – readers can do this today by signing this petition. Readers can also stay up to date with the campaign on the Stop HIV. PrEP Now. Facebook page.
Where can people find out more?
You can find out more about our campaign for PrEP here.
If someone is concerned they need an HIV test what should they do?
Terrence Higgins Trust runs a free and confidential helpline called THT direct. They provide advice, support and information about HIV, including where people can go for a HIV test. THT Direct is here to help between 10am and 8pm from Monday to Friday, on 0808 802 1221.