OPINION: The opportunity to end the HIV epidemic is in our grasp – but no one knows about it

by Ian Green and Deborah Gold | Terrence Higgins Trust
Friday, 21 February 2020 12:31 GMT

A student displays his hands painted with messages as he poses during an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign to mark the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial, in Chandigarh, India, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ajay Verma

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The government has committed to ending HIV diagnoses in England by 2030 - but only 7% of people in the country know that

Ian Green is chief executive of Terrence Higgins Trust and Deborah Gold is chief executive of National AIDS Trust

Did you know that the government has committed to ending HIV diagnoses in England by 2030? Well, if you didn’t, you are not alone as research has shown that just 7% of people in England are clued up – despite that crucial goal being less than a decade away. 

In the 1980s, reports of a new killer virus were splashed across the front pages as hysteria gripped the country. Back then, an HIV diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence with no treatment available to fight the virus.

Now, things are very different thanks to huge progress in the fight against HIV, which means we now have a real chance to end the epidemic in England. But with that progress, attention from the media, from governments and from the public has waned and jeopardises what we are now trying to achieve.

For example, while new research from Terrence Higgins Trust and National AIDS Trust found that almost a quarter of people believe new HIV transmissions can be stopped by 2030 in England, we also discovered that more than a quarter (28%) doubt this goal is possible.

This may well be due to many people’s knowledge of HIV being stuck in the 1980s or ‘90s. And, in terms of up-to-date knowledge of HIV, we found that six in 10 (59%) of people are unaware that effective treatment means HIV can’t be passed on, while a staggering seven out of 10 (69%) don’t know that the HIV prevention pill PrEP stops someone from contracting the virus.

That urgently needs to change if we’re to make our goal of ending transmissions a reality by 2030 and this is why we established the independent HIV Commission. The commissioners are tasked with making clear evidence-based recommendations for ending the epidemic in England and they’re currently heading out across the country to hear from the public how to make that happen.

And, to be entirely clear: this goal is achievable and we’re going to do everything we can to get there.

Public attitudes have played a big part in the story of the HIV epidemic and we know those chilling tombstone adverts of the 1980s are still the only reference many people have about the virus. The impact of this out-of-date view of HIV now seriously risks holding us back. Whether it’s the fear of going for a test or the stigma and discrimination that far too many people living with HIV still experience.

Yet while public perceptions have the power to halt progress, they also have the potential to do the exact opposite and drive us forward towards the end of the epidemic.

The HIV Commission, established by charities Terrence Higgins Trust and National AIDS Trust, is asking for everyone to have their say and let us know what needs to happen to end HIV cases in England. The call is now open and you can submit your thoughts in many different ways, from spoken word to dance and photography, as well as in writing.

This year marks the start of the fourth decade of the HIV epidemic. An HIV epidemic that has cost the lives of far too many people here in England and elsewhere in the world.

The advances in HIV treatment have been one of the biggest success stories in modern medicine but we won’t win this fight unless everyone plays their part.

The countdown to 2030 has already started and the opportunity is there – but we can’t do it alone.