Perhaps foolishly, to gauge what the public reaction might be like, I went on social media to read some of the comments on recent HIV news stories. One does not have to scroll down far to find comments like:
“Anyone with HIV who has sex should be tried for murder”,
“fags getting what they deserve”,
or “disgusting lifestyle choice”. Now, most of the people behind such comments will be homophobes who are weaponising HIV to attack LGBT people. If it was not HIV, they would find something else, because they are haters and they are not pleasant people.
But HIV stigma is not just a symptom of homophobes. Even the most well-meaning people can perpetuate HIV stigma. It takes many shapes. It can be believing that HIV and AIDS are always associated with a death sentence. It can be thinking that HIV is transmitted only through sex. It is thinking that HIV infections are the result of some personal or moral fault. It can be believing inaccurate information about how HIV is transmitted, which in turn creates irrational behaviour and misconceptions about personal risk.
Before I was diagnosed, I myself perpetuated some of those stigmas, so it is not without judgment that I ask people to reflect; it is a genuine ask that we begin to think, talk and act differently when it comes to HIV. That is even harder when there is a taboo about talking about sex, which means that stigma is often compounded, thereby creating a more risky environment because people do not seek the treatment that they need.
The Sussex Beacon in my constituency is one of only two residential care facilities in the country for people living with HIV. It originally started as a hospice in the 1990s, when three to four people died there each week. Fortunately, end-of-life care is now a rare occurrence at the Beacon, and today most of its support services are utilised by people with HIV from marginalised groups who face a big stigma. Older people diagnosed late, women, black and ethnic minorities—all these groups are disproportionately affected by stigma and rely on the good work of the Sussex Beacon and other charities like it. But their funding is being reduced.
Yesterday, I was lucky enough to get a photo with Stiggy the Stigmasaurus at the Martin Fisher Foundation, as part of the foundation’s campaign to make HIV stigma history. I hope that Members who could not be there yesterday will be able to join me in that pledge going forward. Stigma causes a treatable disease to become life-threatening, because of the impact on an individual’s mental health and their access to medication. No person diagnosed with HIV today should feel any less able than anyone else to thrive and enjoy life because of their status.
Stigma is not just a UK problem; it is a global one. Fifteen years ago, 200,000 people around the world were receiving treatment for HIV. Today, the number is 22 million, but we still have 15 million more who need access to regular medicine.