Sarah Boyack: Fight to dispel ignorance goes on

The AIDS ribbon is an almost unversally recognised symbol. PICTURE BY SEAN BELL

The AIDS ribbon is an almost unversally recognised symbol. PICTURE BY SEAN BELL

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Twenty five years have passed since the first World AIDS Day was held. People across the globe took part in events to mark the occasion yesterday and I was among them, speaking at an event in Edinburgh.

While the treatment and life prospects of those diagnosed with HIV in the UK have vastly improved over that time, the stigma and discrimination that surrounds the condition remains.

At the start of this month the Edinburgh-based charity Waverley Care published new research demonstrating a worrying lack of knowledge and understanding.

It found that over half of Scots were unable identify all of the ways that HIV is transmitted from a list of options. It also showed that old myths – such as that it can be passed on by kissing or sharing a glass – die hard. As part of its “Always Hear” campaign, the charity has now teamed up with Annie Lennox who, through two decades of activism on HIV/AIDS, has emerged as a leading voice on the issue. The campaign will work to promote greater understanding of the condition, both in Scotland and around the world.

The importance of this work, and the continuation of World AIDS Day 25 years on, cannot be understated.

Across Scotland, there are almost 6000 people living with HIV, a quarter of whom are unaware of their infection. The significance of the undiagnosed 25 per cent cannot be understated. The vast majority of new HIV diagnoses are passed on by someone who is unaware of their infection. Not only are these people unaware of the risk they present to others but, as time goes by, the effectiveness of treatment declines.

Fear of HIV cannot prevent people from getting tested if they feel they may have put themselves at risk. Where in the mid-90s an HIV diagnosis was effectively a death sentence, a person diagnosed and treated in good time today can expect to live a near normal lifespan and is very unlikely to pass on the condition.

At Waverley Care the agenda to advance education and understanding of HIV sits alongside support for those living with the condition. The charity provides a broad range of advice and information, projects providing counselling and befriending and targeted initiatives to groups such as gay and bisexual men.

The work of the charity supports efforts in Scotland, both to help those living with HIV and to raise public awareness of the condition, but also sits within the wider global effort to tackle the spread of HIV.

Treatment has come a long way in the UK. However, this is not the case in many parts of the developing world, where a shortage of knowledge and affordable drugs act as barriers to tackling HIV.

International action is beginning to have an impact. The WHO report that over the last decade work to increase use of drugs to treat HIV have saved an estimated 4.2 million lives. However, to highlight the scale of the challenge globally, there are over 35 million people living with HIV, only 9.7 million of whom are on treatment.

I am looking forward to addressing one of Waverley Care’s World AIDS Day community gatherings this weekend and to leading a member’s debate on the issue in the Scottish Parliament next week. World AIDS Day is a timely reminder of the global challenge we face and of our responsibility to advance education and understanding of HIV both at home and abroad.

• Sarah Boyack is a Labour MSP for the Lothians