World AIDS Day

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

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Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

Presiding Officer,

“In the bed was a skeletal young man, wasted away to less than 100 pounds ... he wanted to see his mother before he died.”

I said, “He wants his mother,” to the nurses, who laughed and said,

‘Honey, his mother’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming.’”

I phoned his mother, who hung up on me. I called her back and said,

“‘If you hang up on me again, I will put your son’s obituary in your hometown newspaper and I will list his cause of death.’ Then I had her attention.”

The woman told me that her son was a sinner.

Those are the words of Ruth Coker Burks. In the mid-1980s, she was a brave young woman who cared for young men in the US who were dying of what was then known as GRID.

The story that Ruth Coker Burks tells is sad. She said that she had a little spade and that she would dig a hole to bury people herself. She would hold a

“do-it-yourself funeral. I couldn’t get a priest or a preacher. No one would ... say anything over their graves.”

That was the situation 34 years ago.

That story is hugely depressing. Attitudes have changed and much that is good has happened in the past 30 years, but it is still important to have debates such as this. In the few minutes that I have, I will talk about some of that good work.

I have a number of people to congratulate. My first set of congratulations is to the city of Glasgow, which has signed the Paris declaration to end new HIV infections by 2030 and do its bit to stop stigma and discrimination. Good on Glasgow for doing that.

Like others, I congratulate Mr Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who is a member of the UK Parliament, on his immense bravery in standing up in his national Parliament to be open to the world about his HIV status. He said that he did that because he wanted to set an example that it is okay to talk about such things in the public domain. He also wanted to talk about what being HIV positive undetectable means.

My next set of congratulations concerns the work that is going on in Scotland on the U=U campaign, which raises awareness that, if someone is HIV positive and is on the right medication, the virus will be untransmittable, because it will be undetectable. That means that a person cannot pass on the virus. The message is simple, but I am not sure that everyone gets it.

The problem is that 9 per cent of people who are living with HIV in Scotland do not know that they have HIV. There is still a huge amount of stigma, and people are still afraid to go to be tested. Campaigns such as U=U tell people that, even if the result is positive, there is treatment out there, they can live a long, healthy and happy life and they can have sexual partners and relationships like anybody else.

On PrEP, I congratulate the Scottish Government. It is incredible that Scotland was the first part of the UK to introduce that treatment and we should all be extremely proud of that. PrEP has revolutionised things—it has been a game changer, especially in the LGBT community. For those who do not know—perhaps for those who are watching the debate—I explain that people who are HIV negative take the treatment before sexual encounters to reduce risk. There are estimates that the reduction can be more than 99 per cent—I do not have the exact number to hand. The times when it does not work are perhaps when people have not been adhering to the regime.

The increased demand for PrEP is putting huge pressure on services, especially in cities. When my office rang Chalmers sexual health centre in Edinburgh to see how long it would take to get an appointment to register for PrEP, we were told that it would take until February of next year, or three months. My office called back this morning, before the debate, and the date has come forward to January, so it is getting better. However, it is clear that the sheer demand for the service is putting a huge strain on those who have to deliver it. I congratulate the people who deliver that incredible service across Scotland.

My fifth and final set of congratulations is to Waverley Care, whose tartan ribbon I am wearing today. I thank the people at Waverley Care for their hospitality at their fundraising dinner on Saturday night. It was a bit of a shindig, and a huge amount of money was raised. Waverley Care has been around for 30 years, since the days of Ruth Burks and those horrific stories of how we used to treat people with HIV. I congratulate Waverley Care on, and thank it for, the incredible work that it has done over the past three decades.

One day, I hope that we will not need debates as sombre as today’s debate. By then, I hope that we will make sure that those who are HIV positive get the treatment that they need, and that we will not be talking about new infections, because there will be none. Perhaps a vaccine is just around the corner—who knows? I am hopeful, but that will need huge amounts of political will.