HIV and AIDS haven’t gone away: Unions still have a key role to play
Yesterday (Sunday 1 December) was World AIDS Day and there has been a great deal of activity in recent weeks to draw attention to the reality that HIV has not gone away – in fact, infections in the UK have risen – and associated issues of stigma, prejudice and discrimination remain potent obstacles to dealing with the condition and its consequences.
A survey released by the Terrence Higgins Trust was frightening: while 53 per cent of people with HIV continued to believe that diagnosis is a death sentence (wrong), 37% apparently thought there was now a cure (also wrong). Meanwhile, last year (2012), there were 3,250 diagnoses among gay and bisexual men – the highest figure ever. In London, diagnoses were up 8% on 2011.
Alongside this, other research confirmed the large number of people who have been infected but who are not aware of it. Never was the need for testing more urgent, never was the need for a public information campaign more pressing.
HIV and AIDS have always been issues for trade unionists since the condition was first identified in the 1980s. Here at the TUC, we have worked with projects in Africa to spread awareness and understanding. In the UK, we worked with the National AIDS Trust to produce a free booklet advising workplace representatives on the issues, how to represent members and what to negotiate with management. This year, we circulated information about the THT’s testing campaign.
They are trade union issues for many reasons: stigma, prejudice and ignorance can kill, they make people frightened to disclose an infection, they deter people from getting tested – and they are issues of particular concern for particular groups in society, of whom gay and bisexual men who are sexually active are among those at greatest risk.
And the research confirms that stigma and prejudice are still at work. A large majority of those surveyed by THT reported that they had often retreated from revealing their HIV+ status for fear of negative reactions. It is true that under the Equality Act, people diagnosed with HIV are legally protected from discrimination – but that is little help to someone too scared of the possible reactions of managers or colleagues who, in the majority, will share the ignorance (and therefore possibly the prejudices) of the majority.
The fantastic advances in medical science now mean that someone diagnosed early with HIV can usually live a normal life. The campaign to encourage people to take a test, and to encourage GPs and doctors in sexual health clinics to offer them, has led to an increase in the numbers of people doing so, and thereby reducing the risk both to themselves and to partners.
The challenges of overcoming ignorance and challenging prejudice need to be kept in mind on a daily basis, and not just remembered around every 1 December. But the NHS faces constant reorganisation and funding restrictions as a result of the government’s austerity plans. A new, and focused, public health campaign is needed, based on a properly supported NHS. Trade unionists can help too to confront the ignorance and challenge the stigma in the workplace.