wadDuncan Hothersall marks World AIDS Day 2014.


December 1st is World AIDS Day.

There are estimated to be more than 100,000 people in the UK living with HIV. A quarter of them are unaware they are infected. Around 6-7,000 people are diagnosed as HIV positive in the UK each year.

There are more than 35 million people across the world living with HIV, and the World Health Organisation believes more than 2 million people are newly infected with the virus each year. Of these 35 million, a staggering 19 million are unaware they are infected.

Have your eyes glazed over yet?

It’s just numbers, isn’t it. Huge, terrifying numbers if you allow yourself to think about it, but just numbers. You can click past them without really getting too bothered.

For people who are living with HIV, whose loved ones are living with HIV or who have lost friends, lovers or family to HIV/AIDS, those numbers feel more real, because they summon up names, faces and memories. And while we always remember them, World AIDS Day helps to articulate, share and cherish them.

But there is something else that sets World AIDS Day apart.

When friends seek sponsorship for a breast cancer charity they often run in T-shirts emblazoned with the name of the person they are honouring. Just Giving pages are covered with photos of parents lost to heart disease, and Facebook pages are dedicated to siblings suffering genetic disorders.

At HIV events, we often have silent moments to remember; we use general phrases like I have above (friends, family, lovers); we sometimes read out first names. But we rarely put photos and full names on T-shirts or donation sites. Not of the dead and especially not of the living.

The stigma of HIV and AIDS affects those living with it, those caring for them, and those remembering their loss. Despite all the information campaigns and improvements over the years, the image of AIDS as the “gay plague”, wrapped up in all those centuries of homophobia and fear, remains lurking in the background and means that few people are willing to be open about the condition.

And critically, this lack of openness leads directly to a resistance to get tested, and a consequent increase in the risk of unknowingly passing on the virus. I still have my “Silence = Death” badge. Thirty years later it’s still, tragically, true.

There is something you can do to help, and it’s really simple: get tested. Tests in Scotland are free, reliable, quick and confidential, and treatments are effective. If you think you might have been at risk of infection, find out. Quite literally the more infections are diagnosed, the better for everyone.

You can also wear a red ribbon today, in the real world or online, to show your support. Here are some other ideas for helping on World AIDS Day.

Thanks for reading past the numbers.

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