World Aids Day: Ending the stigma and transmission of HIV

It is a fight against a infection and the stigma it carries keenly felt in Edinburgh, which was home to an epidemic of HIV and AIDS during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Now, as World Aids Day is marked today, Mike, a peer support worker with Scotland’s HIV charity Waverley Care, has issued a reminder: “People with HIV are human beings.”

“There's nothing wrong with them. They're not infected. They're not diseased. They're not anything that needs to be shunned. They are just human beings like everyone else.”

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Mike recalls: “I was diagnosed in 1998. I didn’t realise I was ill. The whole process was very badly dealt with and very badly supported. Nothing seemed to know together properly.

The red ribbon is worn as a symbol of awareness and solidarity on World AIDS Day

“I was told I had to go on medication immediately, and was basically told that if it didn’t work, I probably had about six months to live. It felt like a death sentence.

“But then, with the introduction of retro-virals, things started improving dramatically. My health started to improve considerably, and we haven’t had a death from AIDS in this country for a considerable amount of time now.”

Waverley Care was founded in the midst of this HIV, AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) epidemic, in 1989, to build the UK’s first purpose-built AIDS hospice, Milestone House, on the grounds of the old City Hospital in the south of the capital.

According to the charity, fear and stigma surrounded HIV at the time, and local people were “understandably nervous” about the hospice.

However, when Princess Diana visited the hospice in October 1991, there was a “big moment in changing perceptions”, as the Princess of Wales “sent a positive message that contradicted negative media coverage”.

Now the charity works to help Scotland achieve its goals to have no new HIV transmissions by 2030, as announced by then-public health minister Joe Fitzpatrick in 2020.

Waverley Care says that to do this, Scotland needs to introduce opt-out HIV testing in emergency departments, as successfully trialled in some London hospitals, and widen access to PrEP – a preventative medication that is highly effective in preventing HIV when taken correctly.

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Scotland was the first country in the UK to make PrEP available via the NHS. However, it is only accessible at sexual health clinics and Waverley Care wants it to be expanded wider to be accessed at GPs and pharmacies.

“I think there's a lot more acceptance in places like Edinburgh and Glasgow because of the size of the gay communities who have done so much work,” said Mike.

“I think a lot of the discrimination does tend to come from older people, who lived through the epidemic years, and it’s never gone away – the falling gravestones and all that [from the infamous 1986 AIDS public health campaign].”

Waverley Care chief executive Grant Sugden described World Aids Day as “an important day to reflect”, adding: “However, it is also a day to look to the future. In Scotland, we are at a pivotal moment in that we could be one of the first countries in the world with zero new HIV transmissions.

“To get there, we need to make sure more people are tested for HIV, that PrEP can be accessed by anyone who needs it, and we need to end damaging and harmful HIV stigma.

“I am hopeful that we can get there, but we need strong leadership and commitment from the Scottish Government and for everyone to play their part."

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