A report published today by the HIV and AIDS in the UK Select Committee of the House of Lords has described the priority given to preventing HIV and AIDS in Britain as “woefully inadequate”. While nearly three quarters of a billion pounds is spent each year on HIV treatment, only a third of that is spent on prevention. In the last decade, the UK has trebled the number of people on anti-retroviral therapy for HIV (ART), while we face the number of people living with HIV topping the 100,000 mark in the next year if current trends continue – 25% of whom do not even know their diagnosis. And people unaware of their HIV status risk infecting others and worsening their own health.
While the scale of this problem has made headlines today, the underlying issue should come as no real surprise. As far back as 2006, while attending a function for UK civil society delegates to the UN High Level Meeting on AIDS in New York I was told by a Department of Health Civil Servant that the UK did not need a separate HIV prevention strategy any more, as it was all adequately dealt with by the UK’s sexual health strategy. Ignoring the fact that the most successful work has been done amongst drug users using needle exchanges, the astounding level of complacency this statement reveals is born out by not only today’s figures, but that the UK continues to have some of the highest STD and teenage pregnancy rates in Western Europe. If we cannot even tackle sexual health adequately, no wonder we are not tackling HIV!
In fact, the most worrying finding is that, a generation on from the start of the AIDS pandemic, the British population is more ignorant than ever about HIV, its effects routes of transmission and prevention.
While the British government has been applauded for its funding of HIV treatment and prevention work in the developing world, we remain shockingly inadequate (and even complacent) on the domestic front. Likewise, the global church has responded constructively to HIV in many parts of the world, especially sub-Saharan Africa, but the British church remains largely ignorant and unengaged with HIV as in issue in the UK. It is time for a change in our attitudes.
Well done to Lord Fowler (the originator of the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign in the eighties that many now credit with playing a significant part in saving the UK from a major HIV epidemic in the nineties) and his committee for reminding us the AIDS has not gone away, and getting it back in the headlines.