World AIDS Day

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 6th December 2018.

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Photo of Mary Fee Mary Fee Labour

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate and I thank Emma Harper for bringing it to the chamber.

Last Saturday, 1 December, marked the 30th anniversary of world AIDS day. That landmark provides an opportunity for us, as parliamentarians, and for Scottish society more broadly, to reflect on the significant progress that we have made over the past three decades in the fight against HIV through prevention, treatment and destigmatisation.

As we have heard, HIV is now a manageable long-term health condition. With proper treatment, individuals can live long, healthy lives and experience either very few, or no, adverse symptoms of their illness. However, that was not always the case. During the 1980s, when the diagnosis rate of HIV increased substantially in a short period, the virus was viewed by many people as a death sentence and was perceived to significantly shorten the lives of people who were diagnosed.

The story of HIV in Scotland and across the UK was shaped by homophobic and moralistic rhetoric.

Throughout the 1980s, HIV was labelled the “ gay plague” as homophobic misinformation spread quickly. It was a commonly held view that HIV was spread primarily by men having sex with men. The original public health campaign that emerged during the 1980s to raise awareness of HIV included television advertisements, posters and pamphlets that frequently evoked the imagery of intimate homosexual relationships. Those images fed in to wider homophobic societal assumptions that homosexuality was wrong and immoral. The public health campaigns disproportionately focused on the spread of HIV through sex between men and they completely omitted discussion of other means of spreading HIV, including heterosexual intercourse and injected drug use.

As a result of much protest and fighting and the active challenge of the spread of homophobic misinformation, the stigma around HIV has thankfully weakened significantly over the past three decades. Although much work still needs to be done in order to eradicate the scourge of homophobia from Scottish society, it is unquestionable that our country is now a more inclusive, tolerant and welcoming place for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Earlier this year, the European region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex AssociationILGA-Europe—ranked Scotland as the best country in Europe for LGBT equality, for the second year in a row. The moralistic scare campaign around HIV of the 1980s is thankfully over.

It is now widely accepted among the scientific community that a person who is living with HIV can take medication to manage their illness, which allows those individuals to achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load. That means that they cannot pass HIV on to sexual partners.

As we have heard, that situation is known as undetectable equals untransmittable. The U=U status is a vital step that helps to challenge the stigma around HIV and highlights that people with HIV can live long, active and healthy lives. It is now our duty to ensure that that information becomes more widely known in society and that it is not known and understood by only the scientific community.

Despite the impressive progress made in Scotland over the past 30 years in preventing, treating and managing HIV, the illness remains a critical public health issue in many countries across the globe, and particularly in those in the global south. Recent figures from Avert illuminate the continuing prevalence of HIV, with more than 36 million people living with HIV across the globe, including more than 1.5 million children. We cannot celebrate our progress in isolation. Although it is important that we recognise our own success, we must not become complacent in the fight again HIV. It is time that we redoubled our efforts to work at not only a national level but an international level to educate and to prevent and treat HIV in pursuit of the United Nations AIDS 90-90-90 target, which is to be achieved by 2020.