PORTOBELLO beach on a chilly December day, not quite the kind of place most folk would dare to strip off into swimming costume in preparation for a dip.
Cathy Crawford, however, has faced up to much worse than the freezing waters of the Forth and the prospect of getting her hair wet.
And when the 61-year-old joins a group of others on World Aids Day to raise money for a small charity which supports a Zambian HIV project, she – possibly more than anyone else taking part – will be aware that there are far worse things out there than anything that might possibly happen at sea.
“Besides,” she says with a laugh, “I’ve had my flu jag so I reckon I’ll be alright.
“I’m not expecting it to be particularly tropical. But if it raises awareness that HIV is still around – and so am I – then it’s worthwhile.”
Indeed, it’s now 17 years since the retired teacher from Abbeyhill was given the news that she has HIV, a kick to the guts that back in the mid-1990s was tantamount to a death sentence.
To make it worse, she hardly fitted the bill for the “typical” patient. Back then the phrase “HIV positive” tended to be associated with intravenous drug use, homosexual activity, a wildly promiscuous sex life or, less often but with perhaps more sympathy from the general public, a transfusion with infected blood.
Instead, Cathy contracted the disease while working in Botswana. She had practised safe sex with her partner Charles, an economist. However, when he gave blood for a relative in hospital – and there was no suggestion of HIV in his donation – they wrongly assumed they no longer needed precautions.
Within a few weeks Cathy took ill with a flu-like illness. She later tested HIV positive – a diagnosis that sent her world crashing around her.
“The hospital doctor said: ‘I’m very sorry, I didn’t expect to have to tell you this, but you’re HIV positive’,” she recalls.
“He advised me to return to the UK, where I got a really good consultant who encouraged me to think that I should do what I wanted to do with my life.
“One of the first things that came into my head was ‘I am not going to waste what life I’ve got left. I’m going to do something a more meaningful’.”
Here, new drug programmes and a wide support network gave her a new zest for life: she took a masters degree and began teaching English and celebrated her 60th birthday by climbing Ben Nevis.
Today, agrees Cathy, attitudes have changed, but old stigmas sometimes still remain. “I feel I’ve a lot less to worry about these days, it’s definitely a lot easier to manage than it was.
“But there are times when I think ‘I don’t think I’ll tell this person’.”
According to Edinburgh-based HIV support organisation Waverley Care, despite medication keeping the virus under control and better knowledge of its risk factors, old-fashioned stigma and prejudices surrounding HIV remain.
Indeed, its research released to mark this year’s World Aids Day on December 1 reveals more than half of Scots are unable to correctly identify all of the ways HIV is and is not transmitted from a list of possible routes. And, worryingly, 14 per cent of Scots claimed not to have any sympathy for those living with HIV.
Like Cathy, Vincent Chippriott, 63, an Edinburgh-based business travel manager, agrees HIV is still regarded different from other chronic diseases, a problem that could put people off seeking tests or treatment.
“Many people living with HIV experience stigma from misinformed misconceptions, myths and incorrect information,” he says.
“Until these issues are addressed stigma will remain and impact on the wellbeing of everyone living with HIV.”
He was diagnosed in 2005, news which came as a massive shock. “I’d been in a monogamous relationship for over 17 years, and after my partner left me, I was still so much in love that I’d remained celibate for years. I was always extremely cautious and led a very healthy lifestyle. I still do,” he says.
His diagnosis led to a breakdown in his relationship with his immediate family, However, his health has been kept steady thanks to antiviral drugs and help from Waverley Care.
“I still have bad days, days when I wonder if it’s all worth it, but my faith, which has never left me, gets me through. I believe that there is a better life to come, so I make the best of what I’ve got, as well as try and improve life for others.”
There are 6000 people with HIV in Scotland and 900 under-15s in the UK. But according to Waverley Care’s findings, many people remain confused about what HIV means.
Its research found 26 per cent of people in the Lothians believe a person living with HIV cannot practice as a doctor, while six per cent wrong believe HIV can be transmitted via impossible routes like kissing and spitting.
Nationally three per cent of Scots believe HIV can be passed on from person to person by sharing a glass, with some also considering toilet seats and sneezing as posing an HIV risk.
On the plus side, three-quarters of people in Edinburgh and the Lothians (77 per cent) think more needs to be done to tackle stigma and prejudice against people living with HIV in Scotland.
Grant Sugden, Waverley Care’s chief executive, says: “It’s hugely positive to see that the majority of Scots have supportive attitudes towards people living with HIV, and feel that more needs to be done to get rid of the stigma and discrimination that prevails in our society.
“However, these new findings prove that there are still awareness gaps about HIV in Scotland, which needs to be addressed.
“More often than not, stigma and discrimination stems from an unfounded fear of infection due to a lack of knowledge about HIV. As indicated in our survey, more people in Scotland need to learn the facts.
“With almost 6000 people living with HIV in Scotland, it’s vital that more time and effort is spent educating the public so that we can hear the truth about HIV, eradicate the fear and ultimately put an end to the stigma that surrounds the condition.”
• For more information, visit www.waverleycare.org. Cathy Crawford will swim in the Forth at Portobello on World Aids Day, December 1, to help raise money for ImpAcTAIDS which helps people affected by the virus around the world. Donate to the swim by going to www.mydonate.bt.com and searching “ImpAcTAIDS”.