Written with Dan Hartland, Director of Operations at the Saving Lives Charity
We launched the HIV awareness charity Saving Lives because we believed that stigma has a real and measurable impact on health. Prejudice impacts upon how people behave, how readily they visit their doctor about a problem, and how effectively medics and charities can communicate about public health issues. As Randy Shilts showed in his justly-famed book And The Band Played On showed, ignorance and misunderstanding can play havoc when dealing with viruses like HIV.
We’ve come a long way since those early days, both in terms of how we test for and treat HIV, and the way in which we speak about it. Charities such as Saving Lives try to promote HIV awareness and challenge HIV related stigma: today, we ask our Ambassadors to talk about HIV in a positive way, encouraging people to test and educating people that HIV can be treated effectively – if it is diagnosed early.
Our Ambassadors explain that modern life-saving treatments can provide long, full lives for those living with HIV. That means being diagnosed is a good thing: the earlier someone can get on treatment the better for their long-term health and, of course, for their partners: people living with HIV who are taking their medication become essentially non-infectious.
That’s what makes Nigel Farage’s comments yesterday in an interview with Newsweek Europe so wrong-headed, depressing and frustrating. Asserting that he and UKIP wish to “control the quantity and quality of people who come”, he singled out one particular group as a good place to start: “people who do not have HIV, to be frank.”
Farage’s ignorance about HIV and those who live with the virus does not, we hope, extend to other elements of his policy platform. The concept that we should single out individuals with a particular medical condition and prevent their entry into the UK is barbarous. It would also be ineffective as policy, as the UN and other organisations agree.
Does he also believe that individuals born and contracting HIV in the UK should be deported?
It is true that 38% of those diagnosed with HIV in the UK last year were born outside of UK. But these undiagnosed individuals would not have been identified by border control – unless Farage is suggesting HIV tests for everyone queuing at passport control?
A travel ban, meanwhile, would simply target those individuals already on treatment. As in the USA prior to the overturning of a similar ban by President Obama in 2009, immigration controls of this sort only enhance the damaging stigma surrounding the condition, dissuading people in the home country and beyond from taking precisely the test that can get them onto effective treatment.
There are 30 million people living with HIV around the world. One hundred thousand of them live in the UK, and they make a hugely positive contribution to our society, across every sphere of activity. Treatment today is more effective than ever and getting cheaper all the time, freeing up people living with HIV to make even greater contributions to our national life – no matter their country of origin.
It’s very simple: ignorance perpetuates stigma and stigma kills. In making the latest in a long series of ill-informed pronouncements, Nigel Farage seems to hark back to a dark period of history which we are all much better off leaving behind.
Maybe Mr Farrage should read our simple guide, What is HIV? He would then realise that it’s public education and HIV testing that Saves Lives.