Ahead of Saturday’s World AIDS Day, Ray Collins calls on the government to make HIV testing a Public Health England priority
Today, I will ask Ministers whether they intend to endorse the standards of care for people living with HIV published by the British HIV Association. We will also on Saturday commemorate World AIDS Day.
For me, 1st December is a day of reflection, a time to remember friends and people who lost their lives to HIV. In the early days of the epidemic a positive test meant prepare for the worst; for some it also resulted in losing their job and all too frequently their home. I never really got over seeing so many young friends adjusting to grief and bereavement so early in their lives. Everyone grew up really fast then.
30 years on, medical advances and treatment means that if diagnosed early HIV can be successfully treated and people live to near normal life expectancy. However those living with HIV still face exceptional levels of stigma and discrimination, including when using public services. Levels of poverty and unemployment remain high. Many also face a variety of associated health problems, such as mental ill health and a range of physical illnesses.
In the Lords there is a fantastic cross party coalition led by Lord Fowler and Baroness Gould, and their Select Committee Report has done so much to raise awareness about HIV. They reported that in Britain this year there will be 100,000 people living with HIV with the even more frightening fact that a quarter remain unaware of their infection. That’s 25,000 people not aware of the risks to themselves or others.
That’s why it is so important to raise awareness about testing because, as the BHIVA say, late presentation of HIV continues to carry significant risks of morbidity and mortality, reduced life expectancy, and increased rates of hospitalisation. Undiagnosed, untreated and the more advanced stages of HIV infection facilitate onward transmission, compromising both individual well-being and the wider public health.
The government must make HIV testing a specific area of priority for Public Health England. It should also look at ways of incentivising GPs to improve upon their abysmally low levels of testing even in high prevalence areas.
Another recommendation of the BHIVA is that people living with HIV should be enabled to maximise self management of their physical and mental health, their social and economic well-being, and to optimise peer support opportunities. As with many other long term conditions, these approaches can help people with HIV to gain confidence, skills and knowledge to manage their own health, with resulting improvements in quality of life and independence. I want to make sure the changes in the NHS commissioning process will not affect the ongoing funding for the excellent self management services currently provided by organisations such as the Terrence Higgins Trust and Positive East.
People with HIV need support, not judgment. So I hope that as many of many fellow Peers will put on a red ribbon today and not only remember those who have passed away but to Stand Up and Stand Out for their 100,000 fellow citizens who live with HIV.
Lord Ray Collins of Highbury is a frontbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords
Published 29th November 2012