Kezia Dugdale: Sturgeon can have no “pride” over HIV services

Nicola Sturgeon wears her 'Choose Love' T-shirt at the Pride march in Glasgow. Picture: SNS
Nicola Sturgeon wears her 'Choose Love' T-shirt at the Pride march in Glasgow. Picture: SNS
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I for one was delighted to see Scotland’s First Minister lead the Pride march in Glasgow on Saturday.

A cynic might suggest that it provided the perfect excuse as to why she wasn’t joining the anti-Trump marches in Edinburgh at the same time.

Such a cynic though would face a barrage of harsh criticism from those who’d point to Nicola Sturgeon’s record on LGBT issues. There’s no doubt she’s an ally of the LGBT community and a powerful one at that, but as that well-known sage and philosopher Spider-Man might say: “With great power comes great responsibility.” And that’s the catch.

Standing at the front of the march wearing a rainbow coloured “Choose Love” T-shirt will inevitability force greater scrutiny of the Scottish Government’s record and there’s one stand-out sore point to focus on: the funding of HIV services.

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HIV/AIDS ravaged this city in the 80s to such an extent we were considered the European capital for it. The proliferation of heroin use in council estates was at the root of the rising infection rates. Desperate people living desperate lives chose to escape them with a shared needle of brown poison. Elsewhere in the city, gay men were finding each other and having risky unsafe sex. People were scared and ignorant, and that fuelled an intolerance towards the LGBT community that is almost unimaginable now.

Over the past few decades, we have seen rapid medical advances which mean that HIV is no longer a death sentence. Advancing at almost the same pace was the knowledge of the disease itself and how it passed from one individual to another. People learnt not to share needles; others to use condoms.

Huge investment was put into services to support those living with HIV. Services to support individuals’ mental health was critical, especially as many people were socially isolated after revealing their status. Other help came in the form of hospices to allow those facing the worst to die peacefully surrounded by love and understanding. Much of this work was done by organisations like Waverley Care, Terrence Higgins Trust and HIV Scotland.

There were 256 new recorded incidences of HIV in Scotland in the first nine months of 2016. Half of them are thought to have got HIV outside the country and, of the remainder, most are men aged between 25 to 44. And the infections were four times more likely to be the consequence of unprotected sex between men than they were drug use.

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These figures are a fraction of what they used to be, but they still represent a significant problem and it truly does beggar belief that the Scottish Government thinks now is the time to withdraw funding from HIV Scotland. When challenged, SNP ministers say they are still putting significant cash into services to support the HIV community and they are right. Much of the cash which will be taken from HIV Scotland will be redirected to other organisations which provide direct services, often within a clinical setting.

The Government also insists that HIV Scotland is losing out because it doesn’t provide any direct services and this is where the Government is very badly mistaken. Because the story of HIV in this city is one of advocacy, understanding and education as much as it is one of medical research and clinical services. There is now a drug available in Scotland called PrEP which prevents the transmission of HIV. This was a sensational breakthrough and only possible because HIV Scotland campaigned and fought for it. If that’s not a service to the community, I’m not sure what is. It’s clear that money is needed to support and advocate on behalf of such a marginalised and vulnerable group of people.

There’s not a colour in the rainbow which can mask that need or hide that truth. When it comes to funding for HIV services, right now, the Scottish Government should be very far from proud.