Gina Davidson: We need to get HIV back on the health radar

Demonstrators at The Mound in Edinburgh during what was said to be Scotland's first public protest about the lack of government spending on AIDS and HIV research. Picture: Crauford Tait

Demonstrators at The Mound in Edinburgh during what was said to be Scotland's first public protest about the lack of government spending on AIDS and HIV research. Picture: Crauford Tait

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IT only lasted 47 seconds but it scared the life out of me.

The government’s advert to raise awareness of Aids and HIV, the carving of a tombstone with a doom-laden voiceover by John Hurt, was as terrifying to the teenage brain as the nuclear war film Threads. Watching TV in the mid 1980s could at times be a rather bleak experience.

The Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign was meant to frighten sexually active adults into wearing condoms at all times. Safe sex was no longer about not getting pregnant, it was about staying alive. HIV was a new virus and there was no cure: Aids and an early death awaited.

In Edinburgh, the numbers of people contracting HIV went through the roof – in the main because of the sharing of needles as the city was in the grip of a heroin addiction. The Waverley Care Trust was set up in 1989 when Edinburgh was known as “the Aids capital of Europe”. Milestone House – a hospice for those with Aids – opened in 1991 and was visited by Princess Diana.

It was a time when HIV was never out of the headlines, out of TV soap storylines, Hollywood films . . . it was never out of sight or mind.

And yet when was the last time you really thought about HIV or Aids – outside of the annual red ribbon day every December? For me it was perhaps pre-marriage. Certainly pre-children. Personally it became a non-issue. Indeed, I remember being a little shocked I was tested for it when pregnant as part of the gamut of blood tests that are done.

There is little reporting on it, apart from stories about the advances in the drugs available helping people with HIV to live reasonably healthy, long lives. The threat of HIV and Aids has abated – right? What is there to think about?

Turns out quite a lot. Last week, I was at the first election hustings HIV Scotland has held and without a doubt the issues around “the virus” are as urgent as ever.

While it’s true that HIV is not necessarily the death sentence it once was, numbers of those contracting the virus are rising. In the Lothians there are 1547 people known to have HIV, and 68 of those were diagnosed last year. In Scotland as a whole there are 4995 people diagnosed but it’s estimated another 1600 are undiagnosed.

Those who know they have HIV are living longer. What will old age be like for them, especially as many would have thought they would die young? And will there be appropriate support for them in care homes? For discrimination and ignorance are still rife.

A recent survey found that 11 per cent of people still think HIV can be passed on through kissing and one in six think it can be transmitted by spitting. Given the “opt out” schools have of giving sexual health education to our children, many kids have no idea what HIV is, never mind how to protect themselves from it. There are even teachers who don’t know the facts – how to discuss HIV is not an integral part of teacher training modules.

On pure public health grounds that needs to change if we’re serious about stopping the numbers of people with HIV from rising. Sex education isn’t a moral issue, it’s a health one which our children shouldn’t be denied. Interestingly, at the hustings there was general agreement from all parties represented that there needed to be a change in how this was tackled in schools.

Prevention is surely better than cure. But it’s wonderful to hear that the advance in HIV drugs means that the sooner a diagnosis is made and medication taken it can become possible for HIV to become undetectable in the blood. Not that it makes a person HIV negative – it’s not a cure, but it’s a major step on the way.

Similarly a new drug could be given to those people most at risk of contracting HIV in the first place, helping to prevent the spread of the virus. The pre-exposure drug is being considered by NHS England and there was general commitment at the hustings for it to be made available in Scotland – even possibly “off label” to get it introduced faster as suggested by SNP candidate Jim Eadie.

HIV may have fallen off the agendas of people who are not personally involved in it, be it living with the condition or campaigning about it or working with those affected. It’s time that changed again for the future good health of our country.

Focus on schools, not PPP funding

THE unions are understandably making hay while the sun shines with the Edinburgh schools calamity. At the STUC conference there were calls for an independent inquiry into the whole PPP initiative which has funded not only the 17 schools affected but many public buildings in Scotland.

PPPs and PFIs have been a constant bogeyman for unions – particularly as in some instances such as at new hospitals, some staff were transferred to the employ of the private sector as part of the contract deal and suffered worse employment conditions.

I hope an inquiry is conducted, but into how the building industry can produce such shoddy buildings rather than whether or not the funding vehicle was the right one.

I’m glad I avoid cycling in city

THE video showing a black cab driver punching a cyclist after they traded sweary insults at the east end of Princes Street has rightly provoked condemnation.

The taxi driver was clearly in the wrong in using his fists but also in his attempt to overtake the cyclist at an incredibly narrow point of the road – one laid with tram tracks which forces cyclists out to the middle of the lane.

The result could have been catastrophic.

However, the cyclist’s head-cam video also seems to show him weaving in and out of lanes – and at the junction across to Waterloo Place another cyclist is patiently waiting in the queued traffic at the red light while he tries to go up the inside of the stopped cars. Perfectly legal, probably, but unnecessarily dangerous to my eye.

All in all, it makes me glad not to be a city cyclist.

No excuse not to get checked

A mammogram is not the most pleasant of experiences life has to offer women – though it’s not as bad as a cervical smear.

But the best thing about both tests is that they save lives. So why a third of women in the Lothians invited for mammograms are not going is beyond me.

A painful few minutes while your boobs are squeezed and flattened is surely worth the knowledge that you’re healthy – or indeed the early detection of something malevolent which can then be dealt with quicker and therefore more successfully.

Women, get your breasts checked.