Aids Awareness is crucial to fighting infection
December 1st – which is World Aids Day – tends to disappear in a fog of complacency bound up in pretty red ribbons. Let’s face it, AIDS is the forgotten plague. We seem content to ignore one unsavoury little fact, namely that HIV is still a killer. In 2011, Aids killed more than 1million people globally. In our haste to save lives in Africa, we have turned a blind eye to the situation here in the UK. Worryingly, recent research revealed that more than half of us are ignorant of how HIV is transmitted. AIDS awareness is at an all time low and our – albeit generous – desire to help other countries has blinded us to the threat here at home. Many of you will remember the brilliant and graphic AIDS awareness advertising campaigns of the early Nineties, the falling icebergs, the grey tombstones, the myriad of scare tactics. Well, they worked. There was never any doubt back then that HIV was the deadly, silent threat perched on every bed post. These days, however, so many people are, singularly, failing to hear the safe sex message. You only have to look at the number of teenage pregnancies to see that. This is bad news, mainly because the prognosis for those people who are diagnosed has changed dramatically. Having HIV is no longer the death sentence of a quarter of a century ago. Now people live with HIV, even if it is thanks to a cocktail of drugs. Make no mistake: we are still facing an AIDS crisis. Tragically, the general public is cooling towards the subject, becoming complacent about what they will and won’t do in relationships. There has always been a tendency to see HIV as someone else’s problem: it’s the fault of gay men, druggies, Africans, anyone but us. The truth is HIV can be spread by men to women, women to men, men to men, mothers to babies, as well as by sharing needles and contaminated blood products.
Most important of all, especially to those affected by stigma, no amount of kissing, hugging, crying, sneezing, sharing crockery or sitting on lavatory seats can give you AIDS. Not even casual everyday contact with a carrier can do that. The only known effective transmitters of the virus are, let’s try to be honest for a moment, blood and semen. Drugs are a huge problem in this country, yet we continue to turn a blind eye to the misery and suffering caused to the families of addicts. It seems there are always people ready to protect children from unsuitable adults – from paedophiles and child abductors, but not from parents who abuse drugs. Experts say such children suffer a great deal of ‘hidden harm’, such as poverty, ill health, neglect, poor educational opportunities, abuse of various kinds and, later, homelessness, institutionalisation and the ever-present threat of HIV infection. While there have been great advances in the treatment of AIDS and HIV, studies have shown that a late diagnosis accounts for some 35 per cent of HIV-related deaths among adults in the UK, an unnecessary statistic. People are dying because they never knew they were ill in the first place. And when they did find out, it was too late to have effective treatment. AIDS itself doesn’t kill anybody as such. What happens is that HIV compromises the immune system, decimates the white blood cells – the body’s principal means of protecting itself from infection. And, as the cells are destroyed, AIDS-related infections take hold. Nevertheless, without a test, the virus can take years to manifest itself. Its long incubation period means it moves invisibly so a lot of people don’t know they have it. Saddest of all, our progress in providing drugs to people who suffer has not really been matched by any accompanying change of attitude towards those infected. I wrote about AIDS thirty years ago, when Edinburgh found itself right at the centre of the outbreak. By studying stored blood from drug users, researchers were able to pinpoint the start of the virus in Edinburgh to mid-1983, a predicament caused by addicts sharing needles in what they called shooting galleries. Outside Edinburgh, AIDS was often known as the gay plague. Some people saw it as the wrath of God or the end of the world; others even thought it was a plot by the KGB or CIA – anything but take responsibility.
Even now, in 2013, when it is everybody’s plague, some people still shy away from behaving responsibly where sex is concerned. Despite the increase in heterosexuals with HIV, most people allow themselves to be lulled into believing that AIDS is “dying out” – and the irony of those words will be lost on them. We need to work much harder on prevention, yet some charities and members of the medical profession are struggling to raise awareness. Few people take into account the huge effort made by gay men when AIDS became a problem back in the 80s. All over the world, homosexuals changed their lifestyles. And no, they were not to blame for the virus spreading. Have you ever heard of anyone being blamed for spreading flu? And yes, it is exactly the same. One day, historians will one day record that homosexuals were the heroes of the 80s and 90s. It was they who alerted the world to the disaster of AIDS, the disease which had already killed off thousands in Central Africa. These same historians will hopefully also record that thousands of lives could have been saved had heterosexuals also changed their ways. They will ask why straight people kept pontificating about the evils of homosexuality while failing to do anything about their own practices. This is not a good time to climb onto the moral high ground – because AIDS shows no favours, not to black or white, rich or poor, male or female. AIDS could probably be eliminated within a generation or two, if everyone took the dreadful lessons of the past 30 years to heart. Of course, Africa matters. But the rest of the world needs to set standards so that we can all live safely. There are already too many people out there desperate to kill us off, terrorists and the like. Surely the last thing we want to do is aim a loaded gun at ourselves?