Commentator Owen Jones has an excellent opinion piece in The Guardian, noting that stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS is even more tragic now than in the 1980s, since we now have the technology to effectively manage the infection or to prevent it entirely. Stigma, discouraging people from seeking help, is entirely counterproductive.
Around one in four people with HIV don’t know that they have it, and this helps the virus to spread. Indeed, HIV numbers continue to rise: approaching 110,000 Britons live with the illness; in 2013, 6,000 were newly diagnosed. Given four of 10 people who are diagnosed have late-stage HIV, the need to encourage testing to ensure early detection and early treatment speaks for itself: the likes of the Sun will only undermine these efforts.
Obviously there should be no complacency when it comes to halting HIV’s spread. But what makes the Sun’s story [of an alleged HIV-positive movie star] so out of sync with reality is that HIV is no longer a death sentence in this country. Patients properly treated can expect to live normal lives with normal life expectancies. Current treatments are so effective, says the Terrence Higgins Trust, that they reduce HIV to an undetectable level, meaning that those living with the illness cannot pass it on.
This is a good time for HIV treatment and prevention. When taken daily by those without the illness, tests show that pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) may be entirely effective at stopping people becoming infected. The NHS is still refusing to prescribe the drug to high-risk individuals – though it is far cheaper than treating people after infection – although campaigners are doing their best to force the medical authorities to see sense. And new treatments may be on the way, such as an injection every one to two months, instead of a cumbersome daily regimen of pills.
And yet the stigma remains. It would be easy to dismiss it as confined to rightwing redtops, but that isn’t true either. You might expect support and solidarity among gay men; after all, HIV was a trauma that, in the west, hit gay men disproportionately in the 1980s, and the collective memory of the calamity endures among the younger generation. Many older gay men watched their partners and friends die horrible deaths; and the HIV epidemic became a means of reinforcing existing prejudices and discrimination towards gay men as a whole.