H-I-Val: Awareness and Perception in 21st Century Britain

Latest posts by Gavin Kelleher (see all)

Last week Emmerdale character Val Pollard was diagnosed with HIV after a casual holiday fling, bringing much needed public attention to the fact that HIV is not just constrained to men who have sex with men, or those with African heritage.

53 year old Charlie Hardwick, the soap star who plays Val, has spoken out about breaking down the misconceptions and stigma surrounding people that live with HIV. We are in a time when the amount of people living with the virus in the UK has never been greater – an estimated 100,000, with nearly a quarter of them not knowing that they are affected. The producers of Emmerdale are contributing to positive change in the perception of people living with HIV as Val will demonstrate that HIV positive people can adjust and lead normal lives, and essentially should not be feared or isolated from their communities.

The Terrence Higgins Trust is the largest UK HIV charity, and works to improve the services available to people living with HIV through tackling legislation and petitioning for change, as well as challenging stereotypes and misconceptions about HIV that continue to be damaging to vulnerable people. Stigmatisation needs to be challenged not just to ensure the fair treatment of HIV positive people, but also to enable everyone to feel confident in talking about HIV and to normalise routine testing.

Over 3 decades since the first HIV related deaths in the UK, much has been achieved thanks to medical advances that ensure people with HIV can lead normal lives and be in control of the virus through medication. However, over the last 10 years there has been a significant decrease in knowledge amongst the general public in how to protect themselves from the virus, coinciding with a growing misconception that HIV has either gone away or is confined to less developed countries and therefore no longer a risk.

One in five members of the British public are not aware that HIV can be transmitted through unprotected sex between a man and a woman, a shocking figure when you consider that 70% of HIV transmissions globally are now between a man and a woman. This lack of education and awareness is linked with prejudice and has contributed to one in three people being uncomfortable working with a HIV positive colleague.

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The virus gradually destroys an affected person’s immune system, and whilst initially there may be no symptoms in most cases the immune system will need help from anti-HIV drugs to keep the HIV infection under control. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It is not a single disease or condition, rather a term that describes the point when a person’s immune system can no longer cope because of the damage caused by HIV, and marks the onset of one or more specific AIDS defining illnesses.

HIV is transmitted through certain body fluids that can contain high concentrations of HIV antibodies, and can be transmitted both sexually and non-sexually, with 95% of transmissions being through unprotected sex, but a significant 2% of transmissions occur as a result of sharing needles or syringes. Casual contact such as hugging, closed-mouth kissing, scratching or spitting and sharing a glass does not transmit the virus.

The 2010 Equality Act offers protections to people living with HIV from discrimination in the workplace, both in terms of obliging employers to support HIV positive people who want to stay in work, as well as making it illegal to discriminate against people with HIV during recruitment or dismissal processes. However, whilst this relatively new legislation is welcomed there is not enough awareness within the workplace of what HIV actually is, and the myths and stigma surrounding it leave many people ‘in the closet’. The isolation and psychological strain of managing other people’s reactions could be a factor in the rate of depression amongst people living with HIV being twice as high as those without the virus.

The government’s reorganisation of the NHS has also made the challenges that HIV positive people face harder to address because responsibility is now split across different national bodies, including NHS England, Public Health England and many local level organisations. In addition to causing confusion and undue stress, this reorganisation does not save costs in treatment and is an inefficient use of tax payers’ money, making the current cuts to the NHS, Council Care services and voluntary organisations unnecessary and unwarranted, especially as cuts to the funding of services aimed at HIV positive people have not coincided with a fall in the amount of people living with the virus.

The Terrence Higgins Trust published a list of things that the government can do in terms of legislation and guidance that they believe would have a great impact on both the lives of people living with HIV as well as those at risk of contracting the virus. It focuses on prevention of the virus through educating young people about sexual health awareness, normalising HIV testing in order to increase the amount of early diagnosis which makes the virus easier to treat, and making sex work healthier and safer. As well as this the regulations demand an end to prescription charges for people living with HIV and the safeguarding of free primary care for all, as well as ensuring benefits assessments take into account the unique needs of people living with HIV when deciding upon their entitlement.

Whilst we should be thankful for the medical advancements that make life saving treatment now available to HIV positive people, we also must maintain an awareness of the continuing threat of the virus that is increasingly transcending the most obvious areas of society and ensure that we are tackling stigmatisation of those that are affected, but not defined, by HIV.

You can find out more about specific campaigning policies proposed by the Terrence Higgins Trust and donate to their campaigns and hardship funds on their website www.tht.org.uk. HIV tests can be obtained in sexual health clinics, some GP surgeries and through many web based organisations for free.