Today on World AIDS Day I want to acknowledge the truly remarkable progress we have made in our response to HIV in this country. With rates of infection at their lowest for two decades it is an amazing thing that we are so close to eradicating the transmission of HIV, but the data continues to suggest that we need more women to participate in routine HIV testing.
Of eligible attendees of specialist sexual health services women are still far less likely to have had a test, and concerningly, are twice as likely to decline an HIV test, than men. The data also suggests this disparity may be getting worse, not better.
This matters because early treatment is crucial for successful outcomes.
Thankfully, the UK has one the best track records for HIV treatment anywhere in the world and almost everyone living with HIV in this country are diagnosed, in treatment and living long and healthy lives. Indeed, Britain was one of only a handful of countries to first meet the UN’s 90-90-90 treatment targets.
Today a person who is diagnosed early and successfully starts treatment soon after infection has a similar life expectancy to someone without HIV, but people diagnosed late are increasing the likelihood of ill-health as well as transmission to others. It is estimated that people diagnosed late have been unaware of their infection for at least three to five years.
World AIDS Day is time to celebrate our progress, but also to reflect upon the history of the AIDS pandemic, to reinforce the facts and to remember those we have lost too soon. We must learn the lessons that followed the devastating impact of the AIDS pandemic on the LGBT community and recognise that stigma and misinformation could hamper our path to zero transmissions by 2030.
The perception that HIV only impacts gay and bisexual men is damaging in two respects. On the one hand gay and bisexual men are still being cruelly stigmatised, and on the other hand, women may be putting themselves at risk by assuming HIV won’t touch their lives.
The perspective of women has often been forgotten, but for many women this has been their story. Terrence Higgins Trust, in its 2018 report Women and HIV: Invisible No Longer, found that 42% of women felt their HIV was diagnosed late.
We need to better understand why this is the case and I have been so pleased to see various campaigns which have sought to raise the profile of HIV in different groups. If we are to eradicate the transmission of this virus no group can be left behind.
But what many of these campaigns highlight is a lack of data around HIV and women. Public Health England’s 2019 report Women and HIV in the United Kingdom was enormously welcomed in response, but the latest data suggests we must go further to act on its findings.
An HIV test should not be an exceptional event and I would welcome any moves to normalise it and to make it more inclusive.
HIV has no target. It doesn’t care about gender, sexuality or race, and to beat it, neither should we, and as it has been for COVID, testing is our route out of the AIDS pandemic.
So today, as we celebrate the amazing progress on our path to ending the transmission of HIV in this country, I encourage us all to rededicate ourselves towards challenging the stigma associated with HIV and to normalise routine testing.
Caroline is the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North, Chair of Women and Equalities Committee and a member of the HIV/AIDS APPG.