World AIDS Day

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

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Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I, too, thank my colleague and friend Emma Harper for bringing to the chamber this debate to mark the 30th world AIDS day. It is only a year since the First Minister publicly took an HIV test in a bid to break down barriers to getting tested. That was an incredibly powerful moment and I am sure that it encouraged more people to follow in her footsteps.

As many members have mentioned, we have come a long way in the decades since HIV and AIDS entered the public consciousness. Extraordinary headway has been made, which is due in large part to the bravery of those with the condition in speaking out and to organisations such as HIV Scotland and Waverley Care, which make huge contributions to helping to break down barriers and encourage testing.

The most recent figures show that an estimated 426 people in the NHS Grampian area are living with a diagnosis of HIV. Between 2009 and 2018, the figures for new diagnoses in NHS Grampian have fluctuated from 21 to a high of 35 in 2013, before dropping to 17 in 2015 and rising slightly again to 22 last year. I hope that that rise is a result of more people coming forward to get tested and diagnosed, which—as everyone has mentioned—is hugely important in stopping the spread of infection.

Although we welcome better detection rates, it is important that we do all that we can to educate people about protection and the importance of testing. We know that HIV testing rates among Scottish respondents are “worryingly low”—that is the phrase that is used in a recent report published by HIV Scotland.

When I was researching for the debate, I looked at the support that has been offered to those with HIV in the north-east and in my constituency. I came across the story of Colin McKay, who has dedicated his life to helping to support those with HIV. Colin said that, initially, he became involved with organisations that help to support people, out of guilt. The reason for that guilt was that he had distanced himself from someone he knew who had been diagnosed. He reflected on that and wanted to make amends. He decided to use that feeling and the fear that he had felt and channel that energy into helping people. He realised that he could help, and the more that he became involved with helping, the better he understood the illness and how those who were diagnosed with HIV felt, so he helped to educate. He has helped many people find their own voice and be able to say that they are struggling or that they deserve better support. People such as Colin are admirable because the more that we choose to break down those barriers, the more we can encourage others.

I agree with Mary Fee about the messaging. I was reflecting that I was in my first year at university when the don’t die of ignorance campaign ran, with its icebergs and its ridiculous scaremongering messaging. That campaign was stigmatising and deeply homophobic. Its legacy still causes damage; it stops people coming forward for testing and blinds them to how the virus is actually spread, which is dangerous. As Ruth Maguire said, women were rarely considered in any of the public health messaging. The situation is improving, but such approaches are still lodged in people’s minds.

Thirty-five years on from the discovery of HIV, we know much more about the virus. We know that people can live with it, but we also know that it is a diagnosis that is still rife with stigma. We are miles away from the era that I described, as everyone has said, but the public health measures and messaging on HIV still need to be communicated continuously, loudly and clearly. I thank Emma Harper again for playing her part in that by allowing us all to talk about HIV today.