We Need to Campaign for ‘ZERO’: HIV Activists Come to Leeds

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“ZERO” was the powerful opener for the Youth Stop AIDS campaign talk in Leeds. Zero new HIV infections. Zero stigma and discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths. All hopefully by 2030.

The talk was eye-opening in so many ways – I for one wasn’t aware that we now have the means to make this vision a reality. Our knowledge on these matters is negligible. Looking back at the very basic and limited sex education we all got in Secondary school, it is no wonder why the stigma and misconceptions surrounding HIV and AIDS is so high. It’s an easy thing to fear something we don’t know anything about and the ostracisation that HIV-positive people face shows why campaign groups like Youth Stop AIDS are so important. 

The talk opened with the campaign visions and information about the Global Fund which has saved 27 million lives since it’s conception in 2002. This is a staggering figure and something to be incredibly proud of but it should also be higher. This was something which came to mind a lot, for me, throughout the talk- this figure shouldn’t even need to be discussed because we should already be living in a world without AIDS. Information about AIDS and HIV is so readily available through groups such as these that it just goes to show how easily it could be incorporated into the wider education system. Then, why isn’t it? 

The stigma that comes with even the word AIDS is so high and so damaging for those living with the disease. Most commonly it’s perceived as a solely sexually transmitted disease. It is but it can also be transmitted in other ways as well. Grace, one of the activists spoke about her experience being diagnosed with AIDS when she was 14 and how her community shunned her as a result. Being so young, she described how her peers and even adults around her all snubbed her and looked down on her thinking she was lesser. The education surrounding sex and associated diseases is seriously lacking where she was brought up in Malawi. She was terrified thinking she would die because medication in places like these are so hard to access. Education is the key to ending stigma but also to people being able to make informed decisions about their actions because they have all the facts. 

Alex, another speaker, was diagnosed at 24 and again explained how a lack of education made it harder to understand himself but also for other people to understand. A member of the LGBT+ community, he argued “dating is a minefield” for him and others living with HIV because so many people don’t have the right knowledge on the subject. This is despite the fact Alex isn’t actually able to transmit HIV anymore as a result of his treatment – something highlight in campaigns like Undetectable=Untransmissable. He still found people would stop replying to him when they found out he had HIV. Having your life so drastically turned around with a diagnosis like this is made no easier with ignorant people then treating you differently for it. 

This is what Youth Stop AIDS is all about preventing. Their aim is to eradicate AIDS by 2030 but in the meantime it is vital for the stigma attached to it to disappear for this prevents access to medication. As I said, education and an open mind is the way to do this. I for one didn’t know, as I’m sure many students do too, about a drug called PrEP can be taken to prevent catching HIV. It is for those who have high-exposure to the disease, so they take it every day and it reduces their chances of infection by 99%.

Advancements such as these are so important and demonstrate how we do have the ability to fight this disease if we keep pushing for it. PrEP isn’t currently available on the NHS in the UK but with the stigma surrounding the disease diminishing and with campaign groups lobbying the government it could be. It is widely available in Scotland and at certain clinics in Wales and Northern Ireland. In England, 10,000 are currently on a trial. This is a good start.

Grace and Alex’s stories are both stark reminders of what else has to be done to help others in their situation and their bravery in telling it demonstrates the importance of such a cause. It’s not hard to get involved with this at all and the cause is so worthwhile.

We need to end the stigma and end the disease. This is a global responsibility which needs to stay at the forefront of our minds and our agenda.