No Time to Be Complacent About HIV

by Seán McGovern (in the 8/2014 edition of The Morning Star)

IF there’s one aspect of the human immunodeficiency virus that we should consider, it’s that it doesn’t discriminate — male, female, black, white, gay, straight. If you are sexually active, it applies to you.

It brings us together to support, counsel and encourage those living with HIV to live the healthiest, fullest lives possible.

Yet when we think of HIV today, we often tend to historicise something that is not historical. It is present, it is now. And regrettably, it is our future too.

The thing about HIV is that it’s no longer “sexy.” People in the West are no longer dying, you say. That it’s not a death sentence any more and that the services and treatments available are exceptional — and they are.

We cannot disagree entirely. It’s just that these statements are not all true.

In 2012, 490 people in the UK died from late-stage HIV or, to be more explicit, they died from Aids.

Of these deaths, 66 per cent were late diagnoses. They wouldn’t have died had they been diagnosed earlier, given life-saving anti-retroviral drugs or, optimistically, avoided contracting with preventative services.

These figures seem low compared with what they once were, but in recent years we saw the highest-recorded spike in HIV diagnoses, so how can we say that the crisis is over?

It is estimated that one in five people with HIV are yet to be diagnosed and a person is at greatest risk in the in the weeks following exposure, when levels of the virus are highest in the body.

The core groups in late diagnosis might be surprising — 25 per cent of those who are accessing treatment for HIV are over the age of 50, 48 per cent of people with HIV identify as heterosexual and a sizeable proportion are women of African origin.

We have become worryingly complacent in our thinking of who can get HIV, that it’s still a “gay disease” and that it’s going to happen to him/her and not me.

In January of this year, the London branch of the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (Act Up) was revived.

Act Up, the diverse, non-partisan group of individuals committed to ending the Aids pandemic, was largely active at the height of the epidemic during the ’80s and the late ’90s. 

Some questioned why we needed to be revived. After all, wasn’t the Aids crisis over?

We disagreed, for many reasons. Since January, Act Up has been working to draw attention to government policy and demonstrate publicly against changes to accessing healthcare by using information and spectacle — in May we stripped in front of the Home Office, turning from doctors to border agents.

This was in protest that, over the next two years, the government’s Immigration Act will introduce radical changes to the work of NHS caregivers — effectively making them work as border agents who must verify a person’s immigration status before allowing access to a GP, charging for primary care and report all suspicious findings to the Home Office.

So who is a migrant? Anyone in Britain for longer than six months.

A student from a non-European Economic Area country, a working-class migrant doing an underpaid job or a fully tax-contributing member of our diverse community.

Basically, your friends, work colleagues, lovers, comrades and NHS workers themselves.

They will face greater costs when making visa applications. Undocumented migrants face up to 150 per cent of the current costs for healthcare — the extra 50 per cent because tracking people down will be so costly.

Any doctor, epidemiologist or common-sense thinker will tell you that if you start limiting high-risk individuals’ access to healthcare, chronic illnesses such as TB, HIV and hepatitis will only increase.

This Act is more evidence of a grandstanding government — prejudiced, harm-increasing actions masquerading as healthcare reform.

A recent frenzy in reporting of “health tourism” myths have appealed to the most hateful aspects of human nature — to justifiably conclude that one person’s life is less worthy than yours.

The evidence of health tourism is anecdotal and anything close to a conclusive figure by the government has been minuscule.

There are many reasons why Act Up is so passionate about this issue.

LGBT activism as we once knew it has changed. We live in an increasingly segregated society, whereas once this issue ignited all to action regardless of gender or sexuality.

But hope remains. One of our recent meetings was made up of migrant rights campaigners, doctors and nurses, activists, students, trade union members, scientists and people with HIV.

Act Up has helped form a new pro-NHS affinity group. We aim to get our slogan #DocsNotCops trending.

We believe that healthcare is a right for all and the NHS should be kept as it was intended to be — providing care at the point of access, not discriminating and obeying the Hippocratic oath, to do no harm.

Of course, as part of Act Up our work is not limited to this one issue.

Other burning issues concern issues of stigma, what we call the “second silence” of HIV and some worrying use of certain drugs that can lead to risky behaviour.

But while we engage with these issues, we watch as much of the mainstream media uses salacious language being purposely misinformed about harm-reducing methods.

As part of Act Up we try to be as direct and as frank as possible, believing that shame and moralism are not methods of prevention, nor is restricting who gets access to services a way to manage chronic illnesses. There is no room for genteel manners when discussing matters of sex. It is our responsibility to take care of our bodies and of those we love.

We have achieved much in combating HIV, but reactionary policies could lead us blindly into an uncertain future.

ACT UP London is recruiting – contact us on actuplondonfighttilltheend@gmail.com for details of upcoming meetings & actions.

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