opinion

'PrEP on NHS England is a victory for the gay community - but we must not forget that HIV stigma remains'

As the rate of HIV transmissions in the UK declines there's still plenty of work to do, writes Attitude Editor-in-Chief Cliff Joannou.

2020-03-16

The HIV prevention drug PrEP will finally be available on the NHS in England. Eight years since the US Federal Drug Agency approved the use of PrEP for HIV negative gay men as a preventative drug, and the World Health Organisation issued guidelines for its use in gay and transgender people, the government has finally seen sense and rolled it out across the country.

After many inspiring campaigns by the queer community - from the people at 56 Dean Street to activists like Greg Owen – with PrEP we are now closer to reducing HIV transmissions in the UK to zero, conceivably during this decade. It’s an incredible step forward from thirty years ago when HIV often led to Aids, and almost always death.

The benefits are many. People will no longer have to source PrEP through online pharmacies that may or may not be offering suitable support beyond simply selling HIV prevention drugs to consumers. Users of PrEP will be engaging with the NHS so their wider physical and mental health is taken into account, and any other needs assessed.

At the same time, it should be noted that PrEP does not protect against the rising number of sexual transmitted infections, the regular testing of which is even more essential since condomless sex became, for most, standard. Making PrEP available through the NHS makes sense on so many levels.

As we celebrate this moment, we must also not forget the ongoing stigma that many living with HIV continue to face. The mainstream media is still grossly uneducated about what it means to live a long and healthy life as a HIV positive person, and how it is a manageable health condition, and not a scare story to be sensationalised as has happened even in recent years by some of the tabloid media.

We must also be aware of the stigma that still exists within the community, and as HIV transmissions decline be cautious not to create a greater divide between those living with HIV and those who are HIV negative.

It will still take years, perhaps decades, for gay and bisexual men to fully step out of the shadow of the Aids crisis and away from the fear, shame and stigma that came with sex, which also often became a barrier to allowing ourselves to be loved.

It is through our resilience as a community and our inclusiveness that we found ourselves at this landmark moment. It’s only through keeping that momentum going that we can move forward together.