A House of Lords Select Committee today published a damning report on HIV in the UK, warning that the current priority given to HIV and Aids treatment by policy makers is ‘woefully inadequate’, and revealing that over 100,000 people in the UK will be living with the disease by next year. The Lords Select Committee on HIV and Aids in the UK also warned that the total cost of treatment would soon top £1 billion per year, and called for all new patients at GPs’ surgeries to be tested for the illness on an opt-out basis.
As the Select Committee published its report, the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) released a new plan to help policy makers deal more effectively with HIV. THT said that the plan, ‘Tackling the Spread of HIV in the UK’, would help to bring down the disease’s transmission, and reduce the financial burden on the NHS by concentrating on four actions: halving undiagnosed and late diagnosed infections within three years; increasing the number of people living with HIV taking effective treatment from half to two-thirds in three years; identifying people who persistently take risks that expose them to HIV, and supporting them to change; and increasing HIV awareness.
THT’s Executive Director of Health Improvement, Genevieve Edwards, told So So Gay she was sure that it was possible to reduce transmission by improving early diagnosis and awareness. ‘Increasing the number of people on treatment is quite do-able, if you think that a quarter of people with HIV aren’t diagnosed,’ she said. ‘Many of those people have already gone past the point at which they should receive treatment. If we can start people on the right treatment sooner, that would go an awfully long way to achieving the target.’
Edwards welcomed the Lords’ recommendation that new patients at GPs’ clinics should be tested on an opt-out basis, especially in areas where infection is more common. ‘This has been done in ante-natal screening, and that’s been one of the big successes in the UK. Very few babies are born with HIV as a result of that campaign, because women who are diagnosed with HIV during pregnancy can be offered the right sort of treatment. So when you’re in an area of high HIV prevalence, this makes sense.’
The Lords Select Committee launched its report to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the iconic ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign, which was run by the Committee’s Chairman, Lord Fowler – as the then Health Secretary. As the report was published, Fowler pointed out that although HIV was now more survivable than it was in the 1980s, it remained a serious problem and not enough was being done to improve awareness; one recent survey had found that a quarter of young people had received no information about HIV in the classroom.
‘In the last 25 years the development of new drugs has dramatically reduced the death toll,’ he said. ‘But that should not encourage a false sense of security. Serious medical and mental health problems remain for many with HIV. People can now live with HIV, but all of those infected would prefer to be without a disease which can cut short life and cast a shadow over their everyday life.’
Edwards echoed Fowler’s warning about the consequences of infection, but warned against a return to ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ style scare tactics. ‘Our evidence shows that scare tactics – not just for HIV, incidentally, but for all public health areas – don’t work. People tend to look away, or immediately think it’s aimed at someone else. So while that sort of direct campaign in the 1980s was hugely influential, it wouldn’t have the same impact today. We’ve learned that we need to find different ways to get that message across.
‘Of course, we have to be absolutely clear about the reality of living with HIV in the UK. Treatments have come a long way, and they’re enormously better than they were. But it’s not without consequence. I think we’re very clear about that. On the one hand, you don’t want to scaremonger; but you have to balance that against being honest about the realities.’
Fowler agreed, and said that improved treatment alone would not help. ‘Prevention must be the key policy,’ he added. ‘One essential message remains the same as in the 1980s: the more the partners, the greater the risk. Protect yourself. Use a condom.’