It has been three decades since we first became aware of HIV in Britain. During those dark early years, having HIV was like being given a death sentence.
Fear, stigma, discrimination and ignorance left people suffering in silence and perpetuated the spread of this terrible disease.
We’ve made huge strides forward since the 1980s and organisations such as Leicestershire Aids Support Service (Lass) have led the way.
People with HIV can now expect to live longer, healthier and happier lives. But there is still much more that needs to be done.
Last week, I opened Lass’s conference at De Montfort University, which brought together more than 100 delegates from across the country to discuss the challenges ahead.
First, we must continue to raise public awareness about HIV/Aids because, despite all the progress, it hasn’t gone away.
There are 100,000 people in Britain living with HIV and nearly a quarter of them do not know they have contracted the virus.
The diagnosis rate in Leicester is just over three people for every 1,000 of our population, which is more than twice the national average.
Second, we must redouble our efforts to prevent people getting the disease, including by promoting safe sex, and to encourage more people to get tested.
This means confronting head-on the idea that “it can’t happen to me” and tackling some of the difficult issues around religious belief and stigma. Third, people with HIV need the very best standards of care.
This includes not only clinical treatment but help and advice with housing, employment and personal finances, and emotional support, too.
Unfortunately, these challenges are now harder to address because of the Government’s NHS reorganisation.
Contraception services, testing, treatment and public awareness campaigns have been fragmented. Responsibilities are now split between national bodies including NHS England and Public Health England and local organisations such as GP clinical commissioning groups and councils.
This does not make sense for patients or get the best value for taxpayers’ money.
The resulting confusion and uncertainty come at the same time as funding for local NHS, council care services and voluntary organisations such as Lass is being cut.
Lass is trying to support people with HIV to better cope with these combined pressures.
Its pioneering women’s programme is helping improve patients’ understanding of their condition and become more involved with their care.
It brings women with HIV together to share their experiences, learn skills, gain qualifications, find work and improve their overall quality of life.
Families and friends are supported, too.
So far, 154 women have benefited. Their relationships with NHS staff have improved, resulting in a better experience of care.
Eight women are now in employment and an additional 13 have enrolled in college courses.
I’m determined to champion the excellent work of organisations such as Lass as a local MP and a member of Labour’s shadow health team.
It’s only by working together that we will address the big health challenges we face, including HIV and Aids.
The LASS Women’s Programme
The LASS Women’s programme is a sustainable project run by women for women, helping them to:
- Understand more about HIV
- Become more involved with (and knowledgeable about) their health care
- Reduce feelings of alienation and isolation
- Receive and give peer support
- Learn new skills and gain qualifications
- Return to (or enter into) the workplace
- Gain an improved quality of life.
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