This World AIDS Day (1 December) there is much to celebrate. In many major cities, London, New York, Sydney and San Francisco among them, we have seen dramatic drops in new HIV diagnoses, particularly among gay and bisexual men.
This is the result that so many of us have been waiting, hoping and fighting for.
The other day I sat in a meeting as Public Health England announced more good news about the life expectancy of those of us living with diagnosed HIV. Ian Green of Terrence Higgins Trust, Deborah Gold of NAT (National AIDS Trust) and I caught each other’s glances. I’ll admit, we were all a bit misty-eyed at that moment.
But even as I feel this happiness that we are finally able to talk with optimism about the elimination of AIDS, something else is shifting within me. In the last few days I’ve found myself grieving for those I lost to AIDS more than I have allowed myself to for years.
‘I think of David who took his own life rather than face lingering death’
As we finally experience success I can’t help but think of wise, twinkly Mick, a member of the Gay Liberation Front and the first person I ever knew with HIV.
I think of Roy who denied his illness beyond the time when all of his friends knew; I think of Paul with his huge blue eyes and even bigger heart and I think of David who took his own life rather than face lingering death.
I think of Derek, who loved beauty but lost his sight; of Ian, who was always the smartest but kindest man in the room and of handsome James and his legendary parties.
‘They are our lost boys, the ones who never got to grow old’
Their names and faces pulse into my mind. Beautiful men, many of them struck down before they’d truly had their chance to find their place in this world. They are our lost boys, the ones who never got to grow old.
Most of them never knew what it is to Google something. They never went on Grindr. They never knew a world where there was an equal age of consent, where LGBT people could serve openly, where gay men and lesbians could marry.
It still hits, it still hurts.
‘This is no time for complacency’
I only allow myself this grief because now the end of this terrible period may be in reach. HIV treatment works. Our life expectancy is unreduced. When undetectable on treatment we do not pose a transmission risk to our sexual partners. Finally, the number of new diagnoses is dropping.
This is no time for complacency though. That reduction in HIV diagnoses has not been evenly spread. Black gay and bisexual men and trans women within our LGBTI communities are not benefiting to the same extent.
Late diagnoses, and the increased likelihood of illness that is associated with it, remains too high among all groups. The clinics, that have played such an important role in increasing testing and access to the HIV treatment that also prevents transmission, are straining to meet demand.
In England, we still don’t have PrEP freely available to all who will benefit.
World AIDS Day
We are making progress but there is much more to be done. We owe it to those that we have lost, as well as to the generations yet to come, not to falter now.
Our goals for the next decade should be: no new HIV infections, no AIDS-related deaths, and no HIV stigma – not just for gay and bisexual men in the UK but for all people, everywhere in the world.
On World AIDS Day we remember the friends, lovers and mentors that we lost. To fully honor all of those that we love and have loved, now is the time for us to seize the moment. This is the time for us to conquer HIV.
Matthew Hodson is Executive Director of NAM aidsmap and the recent winner of Social CEO of the year, 2017. Follow him on Twitter at @Matthew_Hodson. NAM aidsmap provides HIV news and treatment information to support people living with HIV, throughout the UK and internationally, to live longer and healthier lives. If you would like to make a donation to support NAM’s vital work, please visit: www.aidsmap.com/donate