It is two years since I interviewed Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, the woman who co-discovered HIV, and a year since I met with four HIV-positive Britons to find out what life with the virus is really like – behind today’s monochrome media portrayals.
What, since then, has changed? A great deal, and not enough. Before we embark on the political, medical and social shifts, however, it is right to reflect on one person: Ian Gurnhill, who featured in the second of these pieces.
A few months after we met in his Brighton flat, the 67-year-old, who had confronted a succession of egregious health problems since the 1980s when he was first diagnosed, died. He died before my article about him came out. In a time when all the focus is on normal life expectancy for people with HIV, those who were diagnosed late, or decades ago, or who endured the first round of antiretrovirals, are often forgotten. So when I say that not enough has changed, it is in part because HIV-positive people are still dying in Britain.
It is also because HIV’s conjoined disease – stigma – retains its grip, ever-hard. Campaigners, HIV-positive people and HIV charities continue to battle this social disease – often using the nifty tools available from social media – and the government continues to do nothing. It could ensure every school in Britain gives pupils the facts they need to help prevent the spread of HIV and the perpetuation of stigma, but it has refused. Teenagers continue to leave school knowing nothing about HIV, unequipped to negotiate sexual encounters and entirely ignorant of how to protect themselves.
Most dramatically, earlier this year we saw the intervention of UKIP, who during the lead-up to the general election used HIV-positive immigrants as an example of who should not be let into this country and who should be denied help. The reaction was explosive, righteous and compassionate. Much of Britain would not side with those who seek to stigmatise. So when, for example, Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett, the first parliamentary candidate to reveal that they were HIV positive, divulged his story of deliberately seeking out infection in a suicidal mission, the reaction was not one of judgement but, largely, compassion.
And yet, this month, the Sun newspaper still ran a story screaming “HOLLYWOOD HIV PANIC”, leading many to accuse them of whipping up fear ahead of Charlie Sheen revealing his status.
Amid this diverging backdrop we have witnessed mounting pressure on the NHS to make PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) available. Three years after the USA approved the use of Truvada, the drug that protects HIV-negative people from contracting the virus, people in Britain who are at risk of transmission and wish to grasp medicine’s power to prevent it are blocked from doing so.
But, in the end, to consider what in HIV has changed in the last couple of years, all we need to do is look at infection rates. It was revealed last week that in 2014, 6,151 people were diagnosed with HIV. This is an increase on the year before. The battle for condom use is being lost, and the battle for PrEP has yet to be won.