Forget the scare stories — it’s time to listen to real facts about HIV. As the National Aids Trust’s #FactUp campaign highlights, the tombstone terror ads of the ‘80s are long out of date, Abi Jackson reports
Until she decided to reveal it in a local TV interview, nobody apart from her boyfriend, 24-year-old daughter and a few close friends and relatives knew Jo Josh was HIV-positive.
There was no reason for them to suspect. Jo’s a ‘bouncy blonde, very smiley’, an active member of her community and, to all intents and purposes, the picture of health.
She’s also the first to admit she doesn’t fit the usual HIV stereotypes: “You know, I’m a white female, middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual.”
Yet, in terms of her HIV, there’s nothing remarkable about Jo.
During the mid-’80s, HIV/Aids, which had only been officially discovered in humans a few years earlier, became the subject of hard-hitting awareness campaigns.
Posters portrayed deathly-frail ‘victims’ and tombstones etched with ‘AIDS’, and leaflets warning of the ‘dreadful disease’ were distributed to UK homes.
Little was understood about the virus, and it seemed to be spreading at alarming rates, particularly among homosexual men and drug addicts. Scare stories spread equally fast; rumours that you could catch Aids from toilet seats and sharing a cup with an infected person weren’t just gossip, they were reported in the media as truths.
The campaigns served their purpose — for a period until the late ‘80s, diagnosis rates dropped. But they also created another legacy. While the landscape of HIV as a disease has changed dramatically since then, public awareness and attitudes haven’t kept up.
“If you were diagnosed 30 years ago, you prepared to die,” says Jo, from Surrey. “Then, in the ‘90s, treatments came in, but you still prepared to die because of all the side-effects, and people were taking 30-odd pills a day.
“Now it’s one pill a day for the majority of people, and if they stick to the treatment, they’re not infectious, they’re healthy, and they’ll probably live for as long as anybody else. It’s not that big a deal!”
HIV is now something that exists in the background for Jo, who’s involved with the HIV support charity Body & Soul (bodyandsoulcharity.org). She admits that she “went potty with stress” before ‘going public’, imagining people would start avoiding her in the supermarket.
Jo herself had no idea how much treatment had developed before it became part of her life. She’s now determined to help highlight the positive aspects of HIV and dispel some of the myths, and was happy to share her input when National AIDS Trust put together their #FactUp campaign, highlighting five key facts summing up the reality of living with HIV in the UK in 2013.
NAT’s director of policy and campaigns, Yusef Azad, notes that as well as keeping people well, medication also prevents them being infectious.
“When you start treatment, the amount of virus in your body’s lowered,” he explains. “This doesn’t happen immediately, it takes a few months, and it’s recommended that you keep checking for a further six months to check that your viral load (the amount of HIV in the bloodstream) remains at that level.
Once it’s deemed stable, the risk of passing on the virus is virtually non-existent.”
This is ‘great news’ for couples, says Yusef, as in the past it’s been challenging for those where one partner has HIV to enjoy full intimate relationships. It’s also brilliant news for people who want children: mothers can give birth without passing on the infection, and where the man has HIV it’s possible to conceive safely through processes including ‘sperm washing’.
Incredible developments, and considering they all happened in the space of three decades, HIV treatment is one of the major success stories of modern medicine. But scare stories somehow still manage to steal the spotlight, and the UK still has a way to go in tackling stigma and discrimination.
Malcolm Bryant, 46, is passionate about highlighting another of the points in the #FactUp campaign — that there’s no job somebody can’t do just because they have HIV.
Despite being diagnosed with the virus in 1999, he’s in good health, and heads a large team as a senior solicitor at a major Government agency.
It’s only recently that the ban was lifted on allowing HIV-positive dentists, doctors and surgeons to continue working, which sends out a very strong message.
Hopefully, with more positive awareness and the likes of Jo and Malcolm speaking out, the spread of HIV will fall, people living with it will have a good quality of life and stigmas will be eradicated.
“I have a vision that everybody with HIV will be able to stand up and say it,” says Jo. “And not have to be as terrified as I was when I was first diagnosed.”