We went to the Manchester Youth Stop AIDS event and interviewed their speakers
Two of them were HIV positive
Yesterday the Manchester Stop AIDS now society hosted a Speaker Tour.
It followed a campaign called Missing Medicines, for changing the way in which biomedical research and development is carried out for treatment for epidemics such as HIV but also for antibiotics.
The speakers not only aimed to reduce the stigma concerning their HIV status, but also to assert how urgently the government needs to refocus their funding away from minor health issues like Hay-fever onto the likes of Tuberculosis and AIDS.
The two speakers were named George and Brian, who despite coming from very different backgrounds share the fact that they are both HIV positive.
George spoke first, explaining how he had wanted to be on stage his whole life, performing on the West End and Broadway. He had a highly fortunate upbringing with parents who helped him get into a competitive drama school, bringing him one step closer to his dream. When George met the boy of his dreams, his aspirations of the stage were pushed to the sidelines.
When George was first diagnosed, he was strongly in denial. He recalled, “I paced up and down my room. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I laughed and cried for hours”. He moved to America despite his pressing health issues. Yet when George came home, the illness had only deteriorated.
Then Brian told his story. Brian was born in Uganda and was HIV positive from birth, although was only diagnosed years later. Brian was eventually orphaned by AIDS but maintains that he had a normal, happy childhood. However his health began to deteriorate and his skin began to “shed like a snake”.
Brian believed that HIV was a curse, a death sentence. Despite the doctors giving Brian a years course of HIV treatment, Brian neglected the medicine and carried on life as normal. However one supposedly normal day at school changed everything.
“The teacher held up my medication and asked, ‘Brian, what is this?’, as the whole classed stared blankly at me”. In the weeks that followed his school peers would disperse in his presence. Eventually he was asked to leave the school. He felt there was no possible way that his life would ever improve, that his life was over.
But both George and Brian eventually realised something. HIV was not a death sentence. Life could go on. They both sought treatment, and their health began to improve. Brian believed he could “make good out of a bad situation”. George talked of how he and his friends celebrated as his Doctor told him the treatment had been effective, and his HIV was kept at bay.
The treatment is so imperative to the eradication of AIDS. Effective treatment can actually reduce the amount of virus in the blood to near zero. With treatment, those living with HIV can experience a full life, reaching years of life expectancy and beyond.
I got around to asking George and Brian some questions.
What was your motivation for directing your campaign towards University students?
G: So my motivation for aiming it towards students was that young people are the future. I think it’s really important that young people would get on board with this kind of thing, because otherwise we risk momentum fizzling out – we need to put a stop to AIDS.
Does being HIV positive hinder your sexual relationships or intimacy?
B: In a weird way, it helped me get my girlfriend. After months of chasing her, she finally said yes when I revealed my HIV status. She said she will continue to love me, as long as I don’t change her. She still remains HIV negative.
G: I’m actually in a happy relationship right now. I told him, and he was really ok with it. As long as we remain safe, it’s cool.
Did your relationships with your friends and family change when you revealed your status?
G: Yes, although I haven’t had any bad stigma towards me – which I was actually really worried about. But everyone has been so supportive towards me, which I’m really thankful for.
Would you say there has been much change or progress in public perception of HIV in your lifetime?
G: I think recently the stigma has died down a lot, I guess people are a lot more positive about it. I think in the 80’s it was very much a death sentence, but we know now that’s not the case, but I think we still have a long way to go.
There is a lot of misconception surrounding the difference between HIV and AIDS. Could you explain that for me?
G: HIV is the virus, once the HIV virus latches onto your immune system so much, it becomes AIDS. So when you have AIDS, that’s when you can have other health issues – you can become more ill with AIDS than you can HIV.
With all the progression, there is still a sense of this being a taboo subject. What advice would you give to any silent sufferers who are struggling with acceptance?
G: To be true to yourself, you know? I realised when I was diagnosed, I have no choice in whether I am HIV positive or not. There’s a really significant word in HIV positive, which is ‘positive’. If you’re negative, you’re just going to feel depressed, and you can’t afford to do that.
The most admirable thing about Brian and George was their positivity and love of life. Before I attended the talk, I was severely ignorant on the whole topic. I myself made assumptions from the bare minimum information which is publicised. Yet these two men have opened my eyes, not only to the importance of HIV treatment, but to how inspirational people can be in the face of adversity. I was truly astounded by the event.
Only when we break down the negative connotation surrounding HIV and AIDS may we be able to fully realise how vital the treatment is.
Treatment means prevention. It is possible to end AIDS in 2030. If we introduce alternative incentives, prioritise health research and aim to dissolve the misconceptions and stigma surrounding the illness, we can make a difference.
Sign the Missing Medicine petition here