I get dozens of emails each day from people who read my blog, follow me on twitter or have stumbled across me on Google. Some of these are thank you letters, some of these are abuse and some of these are questions. The two most common questions I get asked are “What is HIV?” and “How do I know if I have HIV?”.
If you’re gay there’s a good chance you know something about HIV, it’s in the gay press quite frequently, you and your friends likely go and get tested, you might even know someone who is HIV+. In straight world it’s a somewhat different affair though, it’s not mentioned. Many straight people don’t go for STI screenings, or know anyone who is HIV+. Then we wonder why the rate of infection amongst straight people is sky rocketing.
The problem lies squarely with the lack of awareness campaigns in the mainstream media. We’re bombarded daily with information and charity appeals for cancer, stroke, mental illness, heart disease, 5-a-day fruit and veg, smoking, alcohol etc, but when was the last time you saw a TV advert, a center-spread in a newspaper or a billboard about HIV?
As I see it, the only way to cut infection rates is to raise awareness of the virus, the way it’s transmitted, the effects, and how it can be prevented. But we have to be careful to not tread the same path as the 1980s campaign that used death, tombstones and fear as it’s central message. Scaring people doesn’t help, in fact quite the opposite, fear creates stigma which in turn widens the social divide.
The work of the gay press in promoting HIV campaigns and providing information is noble and should be applauded. But that message only reaches so far. With an estimated 20,000 plus people unknowingly living with HIV in the UK it’s time that the government picked up the torch and build a wide reaching, well thought out HIV awareness campaign – based on facts, understanding and compassion, and to bring that campaign into people’s lives through print, TV and the web.
So Department of Health, The NHS and Number 10 – it’s over to you. I’ll be waiting.