Monthly Archives: March 2017

Damien Hirst has painted George Michael to raise money for HIV/AIDS, and it’s beautiful

In the time since he passed on that bittersweet Christmas Day last year, it has sometimes seemed as if the lives of LGBT+ people, and the world in general, are just a little greyer with him gone.

Story via GT

Luckily, gorgeous George is back in glorious technicolour today, in a beautiful painting by artist Damien Hirst, which will be sold at a charity gala in Texas on Friday night, with the proceeds going to help treatment for people with HIV/AIDS.

You didn’t think George would let a little thing like death stop him from doing some good in the world, did you?

The event will be held in Texas by MTV Re:Define, a contemporary art showcase, and co-chaired by the Goss-Michael Foundation – a British art exhibition which George co-created with his ex-partner Kenny Goss.

“This year is poignant as we celebrate George. We’ve been honoured by his and Kenny’s support,” event organiser Georgia Arnold told The Sun.

“We look forward to continuing to raise awareness and support for our mission, and especially thank all the artists for their involvement and generosity.”

It has emerged that George is to be buried in Highgate Cemetery, north London, next to his late mother who he was devoted to – it was always his plan to be laid to rest next to her.

Security at the cemetery has been increased to 24 hours a day to stop any interference with the plot that has been prepared for George, next to Lesley’s.

George’s £105m fortune will now be split between his loved ones and various charities – he was famously generous with his wealth whilst he was alive, including an instance in which he tipped a barmaid five thousand pounds because she was a student nurse in debt.

He was also a trailblazer for gay rights in the music industry, famously refusing to apologise for being gay in his 1998 CNN coming out interview, saying: “I don’t feel any shame whatsoever and neither do I think I should.”

Well said George – rest easy our friend.

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Thank You to HRH Prince Harry & LASS Partner Organisations

HRH Prince Harry with Salma Ravat & Nadine Coogan (Photo: Tom Robson @tjrfoto)

Partner organisations joined LASS in a training session led by Juliet Kisob and Sadiya Mohamed.  They looked at the role of community HIV testing in encouraging people to know their HIV status and to help reduce late diagnosis.

CEO Jenny Hand introduces HRH Prince Harry to Sadiya Mohamed & Juliet Kisob. (Photo: Tom Robson @tjrfoto)

They were joined by HRH Prince Harry for workshops where they used a case study to look at how critical partnerships are to breaking down stigma and to identify new places for LASS to test in our 30th year. In Leicester 59% of patients are diagnosed late, which is 20% higher than the national average.

HRH Prince Harry unveils a unveiled a plaque marking the start of LASS’s 30th year. With Evernice Tirivanhu, Jenny Hand & David Rowlands (Photo/Animation: Tom Robson @tjrfoto)

Prince Harry unveiled a plaque marking his visit and 30 years of LASS. He invited trustee Evernice Tirivanhu to assist him She said: “It’s quite a special day for us.
“People living with HIV have to fight a lot of stigma, and to find that members of the royal family are willing to come and support the charity is very encouraging.”
Prince Harry’s visit came as the National AIDS Trust reported “an alarming trend for cutting or completely decommissioning HIV support services across England and Wales”.

LASS has been absolutely delighted to welcome partner organisations yesterday.  By working together we demonstrate unity within the voluntary sector and strengthen the approach of social care, support and advocacy across Leicester, Leicestershire, Rutland and the East Midlands.

You can find coverage of Prince Harry’s visit to LASS, and other Leicester Projects from the following news outlets.  Photographs from the training session are in the gallery below.

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Prince Harry Visits LASS

LASS has been absolutely delighted to welcome HRH Prince Harry to our project today. During his visit he took time to reflect on the changes for people living with HIV and unveiled a plaque marking the start of LASS’s 30th year. He was able to look at the history of LASS and viewed the panels that were launched by Princess Diana when she visited in 1991.

David Rowlands one of LASS trustees said ‘No one would have been able to predict the huge medical advances that have meant that people living with HIV are now able to live long and fulfilled lives with their condition, however too many people are still diagnosed late and the fear of stigma and discrimination is extremely difficult for people to cope with. Moving forward significant focus and investment will need to be provided to improve education, awareness, prevention, treatment, care and outreach of HIV testing services’

LASS plans to provide community testing in 30 new places in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland during our 30th year. Some of our partner organisations were able to join HRH Prince Harry for a training session during his visit and invited to assist in the planning of this. Jenny Hand CEO said ‘During our 30th year we aim to ensure many more people take a test, know their HIV status, get the support that they need and maintain good health and wellbeing. We could help the health service save lives and money by reducing late diagnosis. Prince Harry’s visit will make so much difference to the confidence of individuals, as well as LASS as an organisation. It helps everyone to be more aware of HIV and will contribute to reducing the stigma that makes an HIV diagnosis so difficult to handle in our diverse communities locally.’

LASS provides information, advice, support and advocacy services for people who are living with or affected by HIV and also raises HIV awareness through training and workshops . We provide free confidential HIV testing in community settings. LASS works in partnership with other agencies to challenge the stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV.

His Royal Highness Prince Harry joined volunteers, service users and staff in a discussion about ‘My HIV and Me’ and assisted volunteers in LASS café by serving lunch.

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The Story Behind the First HIV Drug

AZT, known as Zidovudine or Azidothymidine, the first approved treatment for HIV (sold as Retrovir and Retrovis). It is used as an ingredient in Combivir and Trizivir.

Today, if someone is diagnosed with HIV, he or she can choose among 41 drugs that can treat the condition. There’s a good chance that with the right combination, given at the right time, the drugs can keep HIV levels so low that the person never gets sick.

That wasn’t always the case. It took seven years after HIV was first discovered before the first drug to fight it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In those first anxious years of the epidemic, millions were infected. Only a few thousand had died at that point, but public health officials were racing to keep that death rate from spiking — the inevitable result if people who tested positive weren’t treated with something.

As it turned out, their first weapon against HIV wasn’t a new compound scientists had to develop from scratch — it was one that was already on the shelf, albeit abandoned. AZT, or azidothymidine, was originally developed in the 1960s by a U.S. researcher as way to thwart cancer; the compound was supposed to insert itself into the DNA of a cancer cell and mess with its ability to replicate and produce more tumor cells. But it didn’t work when it was tested in mice and was put aside.

Two decades later, after AIDS emerged as new syndrome, the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome, already known for its antiviral drugs, began a massive test of potential anti-HIV agents, hoping to find anything that might work against this new viral foe. Among the things tested was something called Compound S, a re-made version of the original AZT. When it was throw into a dish with animal cells infected with HIV, it seemed to block the virus’ activity.

The company sent samples to the FDA and the National Cancer Institute, where Dr. Samuel Broder, who headed the agency, realized the significance of the discovery. But simply having a compound that could work against HIV wasn’t enough. In order to make it available to the estimated millions who were infected, researchers had to be sure that it was safe and that it would indeed stop HIV in some way, even if it didn’t cure people of their infection. At the time, such tests, overseen by the FDA, took eight to 10 years.

Patients couldn’t wait that long. Under enormous public pressure, the FDA’s review of AZT was fast tracked — some say at the expense of patients.

Scientists quickly injected AZT into patients. The first goal was to see whether it was safe — and, though it did cause side effects (including severe intestinal problems, damage to the immune system, nausea, vomiting and headaches) it was deemed relatively safe. But they also had to test the compound’s effectiveness. In order to do so, a controversial trial was launched with nearly 300 people who had been diagnosed with AIDS. The plan was to randomly assign the participants to take capsules of the agent or a sugar pill for six months. Neither the doctor nor the patient would know whether they were on the drug or not.

After 16 weeks, Burroughs Wellcome announced that they were stopping the trial because there was strong evidence that the compound appeared to be working. One group had only one death. Even in that short period, the other group had 19. The company reasoned that it wouldn’t be ethical to continue the trial and deprive one group of a potentially life-saving treatment.

The Photo That Changed the Face of AIDS

David Kirby on his deathbed, Ohio, 1990.

Those results — and AZT — were heralded as a “breakthrough” and “the light at the end of the tunnel” by the company, and pushed the FDA approve the first HIV medication on March 19, 1987, in a record 20 months.

But the study remains controversial. Reports surfaced soon after that the results may have been skewed since doctors weren’t provided with a standard way of treating the other problems associated with HIV — pneumonia, diarrhea and other symptoms — which makes determining whether the AZT alone was responsible for the dramatic results nearly impossible. For example, some patients received blood transfusions to help their immune systems; introducing new, healthy blood and immune cells could have helped these patients battle the virus better. There were also stories of patients from the 12 centers where the study was conducted pooling their pills, to better the chances that they would get at least some of the drug rather than just placebos.

And there were still plenty of questions left unanswered about the drug when it was approved. How long did the apparent benefits last? Could people who weren’t sick yet still benefit? Did they benefit more than those further along in their disease?

Such uncertainty would not be acceptable with a traditional approval, but the urgent need to have something in hand to fight the growing epidemic forced FDA’s hand. The people in the trial were already pressuring the company and the FDA to simply release the drug — if there were something that worked against HIV, they said, then it was not ethical to withhold it.

The drug’s approval remains controversial to this day, but in a world where treatment options are so far advanced it can be hard to imagine the sense of urgency and the social pressure permeating the medical community at the time. AIDS was an impending wave that was about to crash on the shores of an unsuspecting — and woefully unprepared — populace. Having at least one drug that worked, in however limited a way, was seen as progress.

But even after AZT’s approval, activists and public health officials raised concerns about the price of the drug. At about $8,000 a year (more than $17,000 in today’s dollars) — it was prohibitive to many uninsured patients and HIV advocates accused Burroughs Wellcome of exploiting an already vulnerable patient population.

In the years since, it’s become clear that no single drug is the answer to fighting HIV. People taking AZT soon began showing rising virus levels — but the virus was no longer the same, having mutated to resist the drug. More drugs were needed, and HIV advocates criticized the FDA for not moving quickly enough to approve additional medications. And side effects including heart problems, weight issues and more reminded people that anything designed to battle a virus like HIV was toxic.

Today, there are several classes of HIV drugs, each designed to block the virus at specific points in its life cycle. Used in combination, they have the best chance of keeping HIV at bay, lowering the virus’s ability to reproduce and infect, and ultimately, to cause death. These so-called antiretroviral drugs have made it possible for people diagnosed with HIV to live long and relatively healthy lives, as long they continue to take the medications.

And for most of these people, their therapy often still includes AZT.

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How Sesame Street tackles social issues like autism, HIV, disability and other conditions

Sesame Street has introduced its latest muppet – a little girl called Julia, who has autism.

The character’s already featured in digital and printed storybooks, but will debut on TV next month.

Her introduction will attempt to explain the complex topic of autism to a young audience.

But this isn’t the first time Sesame Street has been a trailblazer in introducing socially progressive characters to children.

Look back at some of the other characters who’ve attempted to explain difficult issues to children.

Kami, the HIV-positive character

Warning: third-party content may contain ads.

Kami was introduced to the South African version of Sesame Street in 2002.

She was brought in to try to reduce the stigma around people with HIV/Aids in a country with one of the highest infection rates in the world.

Her name comes from the word kamogelo, which means acceptance in the Zulu, Sesotho and Setswana languages.

The designer of the muppet Ed Christie said in 2004 that Kami was deliberately designed not to be a “humanoid” character, as the makers felt that she would be easier to accept.

Mahboub, the Arab-Israeli muppet

In 2006, Sesame Street introduced a character to try to reduce prejudice between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mahboub, a five-year-old Arab character, speaks Hebrew and Arabic, and appeared in both Israeli and Palestinian versions of the show – as well as in Shalom Sesame, the Jewish-American version.

In a part of the world where tension between the two territories has been high for decades, his introduction prompted some unhappy reactions.

Yuli Tamir, Israel’s minister of education at the time, said the character had the aim of “teaching children how to live together, how to work together with each other despite their differences”.

Aristotle the blind monster

Also known as Ari, this muppet appeared in the 1980s to teach children how blind people live in the wider world.

In one scene, he shows Big Bird how he uses Braille by reading Little Red Riding Hood.

Most Sesame Street characters don’t have visible ears – but Aristotle was a rare exception, to help explain how he uses other senses instead of sight.

Katie the wheelchair user

Big Bird and bullying

A 2011 episode taught children how to recognise and tackle bullying at school.

The story revolves around Big Bird, who, because of his size and colour, isn’t allowed in the “good birds’ club” by its leader Pigeon.

Big Bird even appeared on CNN around the time of the episode as part of a wider anti-bullying campaign.

This wasn’t the first time Sesame Street took on this subject. In 2003, they performed a blues song Don’t be a Bully.

Lily, the muppet highlighting childhood hunger

‘Gay’ characters Bert and Ernie (unofficially)

For decades, audiences have believed that best friends Bert and Ernie are actually lovers – an especially progressive move for a show which started in 1969.

The two do have a very close relationship, and sleep in the same room – and their images have been used in gay rights’ protests for years, for example on the cover of the New Yorker after same-sex marriage was legalised in the US in 2013.

Bert and Ernie’s response to the court ruling allowing Gay Marriage:

In 2014, a Christian-run bakery in Northern Ireland refused a customer’s request to make a cake with the faces of Bert and Ernie with a pro-gay rights message.

But Sesame Street has always denied that the two are gay, including in a Facebook statement in 2011, where they said that the two muppets “were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves”.

Or, as Sesame Street Workshop boss Gary Knell put it in 1994, “they are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets. They don’t exist below the waist”.

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One important exception to President Trump’s budget cuts: programs to fight HIV

America: The HIV community has been bracing itself for the Trump budget proposal. The fight against the disease has a decades-long history of bipartisan support, and the US has been a leading funder of the effort. But President Donald Trump hasn’t said much on the issue, and key members of his team have been critical of anti-HIV activities.

That’s why Trump’s budget blueprint comes as a surprise. Amid an 18 percent cut to the Department of Health and Human Services — including one fifth of the National Institutes of Health’s budget — the administration has said it would preserve funding for important anti-HIV activities.

On the domestic front, the budget calls for funding for Ryan White HIV/AIDS providers — a “high priority” it wants to continue. Ryan White programs provide health care to people living with HIV who cannot get health insurance. With $2.3 billion in funding in the last budget, it’s the third-largest source of federal money for domestic HIV care after Medicare and Medicaid. (Who was Ryan White)?

The budget also “provides sufficient resources to maintain current commitments and all current patient levels on HIV treatment under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.”

PEPFAR is America’s global heath program to combat AIDS (sic) around the world and the largest commitment by any country dedicated to a single disease. The program funds daily lifesaving antiretroviral treatment for 11.5 million people, which is equal to the population of New York and Chicago.

“While this language [in the budget blueprint] isn’t that clear about amounts,” said Jennifer Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, “it implies that current commitments will be maintained.”

The budget is just a proposal, but these priorities are likely to be reflected in the final version — unless Congress wants to kill popular and effective programs that are helping eliminate a disease that used to be a leading killer here and abroad.

Why the HIV community was nervous about what Trump might do

The Republican Party has a mixed record on HIV. Ronald Reagan, Trump’s hero, mostly ignored the raging AIDS epidemic. In 2003, George W. Bush prioritized HIV, launching PEPFAR.

President Trump didn’t say much to say about HIV on the campaign trail. But Vice President Mike Pence has.

As governor of Indiana, Pence first resisted addressing an out-of-control HIV outbreak in his state for ideological reasons, and then changed his mind based on evidence that clean needle exchanges could slow infections among drug users. He advocated for abstinence-only education and, in 2000, suggested that Ryan White — which provides health care to people who cannot get insurance — only receive funding after an audit, “to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus.”

Continuity and bipartisanship have been keys to the success of the global fight against AIDS, Elizabeth Radin of Columbia University wrote at Vox. “The Obama administration continued President Bush’s AIDS program as PEPFAR received support from successive Democratic and Republican Congresses. This allowed PEPFAR to keep building on its foundations, advancing its impact and setting an example by focusing on results.”

Since the election of Trump, groups like AIDS United and the National Alliance Of State & Territorial AIDS Directors have been advocating to maintain government support for HIV-AIDS prevention and treatment, as well as important provisions in the Affordable Care Act.

The ACA was a game-changer for Americans living with HIV. More than half are low-income, and Medicaid expansion and the law’s tax subsidies that help people purchase insurance dramatically reduced the rate of the uninsured HIV population. The GOP plan to repeal and replace Obamacare would eliminate Medicaid expansion, reduce tax subsidies for the poor, and eliminate other provisions that helped HIV patients gain coverage.

“Dramatic changes to the ACA and cuts to other programs would be devastating even if our important investments in the Ryan White Program are maintained,” said Jeffrey Crowley, program director of the National HIV/AIDS Initiative at Georgetown.

And even if Ryan White and PEPFAR may be protected, the rest of the government’s global health and development portfolio may not fare so well. Trump has proposed significant cuts to programs at HHS, the State Department, and USAID — agencies that are also key players on on global health.

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Government policy announcement on statutory ‘relationships and sex education’

On the 7 March 2017, MPs in the House of Commons approved a Government amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill to make ‘relationships and sex education’ (RSE) compulsory in all secondary schools, to make ‘relationships education’ compulsory in all primary schools and to update the statutory guidance on RSE to come into effect from September 2019.

The new regulations will cover all primary and secondary schools, including academies, free schools and independent schools. The amendment also gives the Secretary of State for Education power to make personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education statutory, dependent on further consultation by the Department for Education. Click the link to access the announcement and full policy statement (including proposed timeline) and to see responses from key sexual health and public health organisations.

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