Sunday, 30 November 2014

World AIDS Day - I am wearing the Red Ribbon as an urgent call for action

Last week was National HIV Prevention Week and it was thrilling to see so many posters about HIV testing on the tubes and across London. Tomorrow it is World AIDS Day - and this is one of those awareness days, amongst the many days, weeks and months that I am so glad exists. 

The energy behind it continues, and each year people use the day to raise awareness of HIV that is too often falling out of view and off the agenda. Great that we now expect to see red ribbons being worn routinely on X Factor.  It wasn't long ago we rejoiced that ITV had ensured that judges and performers alike showed their solidarity. There is some progress. Shame it was only Chuka Umunna on Question Time last week.  Maybe next year the Chair and other guests will too given I think we established last year it doesn't contravene some peculiar BBC rule. 

But behind the red ribbon, and the excellent work that will go on over the weekend and tomorrow in schools, youth clubs and communities across the UK, there are some startling and frightening facts.  Sex Education Forum research done last year told us that young people do not have the factual information they need about HIV.  Combine that with prejudice and stigma young gay men face and no wonder then that the number of new HIV Infections have doubled amongst young gay men 15 - 24 over the last decade AND almost tripled amongst young people aged 15 - 24 over a 14 year period. 

We will all wear the ribbon for our own personal reasons. Just having it on my jacket this week has made me think about some special people, happy times and some horribly sad times.  I am wearing the red ribbon this week in memory of my friends and colleagues who died too young, and in gratitude for all the agencies, activists and scientists who have made change that 20 years ago we simply couldn't have imagined.   

I will be wearing my red ribbon as an urgent reminder that; 

  1.  for every day decision makers and politicians procrastinate about making PSHE, with all of the SRE bits included, a statutory part of the school curriculum we fail children and young people
  2. for every financially driven cut to specialist prevention and services for young people and communities at higher risk of infection, it is a false economy and we must challenge that wherever and however we can.  

I also wear the red ribbon as an urgent call for moral and determined leadership and action from everyone within the health system to ensure HIV alongside contraception, abortion and sexually transmitted infections gets the resources and priority it needs and deserves. The fragmentation of commissioning, the failure to make PSHE statutory, and the lack of media and public outcry when the infection data was published gives 'serious cause for concern'. That is why World AIDS Day is important.  A day to reflect, to celebrate and to galvanise our determination to ensure action over the next 364 days before WAD 2015.   

The blog below was published in October 2014

I will say it again new HIV Infections have almost doubled amongst 15 - 24 year olds. I read my briefing over breakfast this morning and I cannot quite describe the feeling in my stomach.  How can we, how can I, allow this to happen and how did this data - - slip out and go largely unreported this week.

Almost 20 years ago I was in the early stages of coming out. It was exciting, exhilarating and scary.  HIV featured heavily in my consciousness.  Shortly after graduating I started working at Cardiff AIDS Helpline, FPA Cymru and was part of the All Wales AIDS Network. We were resolute and determined to do all we could to prevent another generation experiencing the impact of HIV in their communities.  Against a backdrop of sustained investment in education and campaigning from successive governments (some campaigns better than others, but awareness campaigns nonetheless) we developed innovative and exciting outreach and education programmes, we helped open up conversations about sex and condoms in clubs, in parks, in schools and in youth clubs to educate young people about healthy sexuality, choices and protection.

At that time we could not have imagined the advances in drug treatment that have changed the lives and life expectancy of people living with HIV beyond recognition. I am so grateful to all the scientists and activists who have made that a reality.  And we also never imagined it would be possible - morally or ethically - for another generation of young people to grow up not learning about sex, health and protection in ways that are relevant and meaningful to them.  Ways that help them develop the confidence, inner skills and self belief to manage their relationships and choices well, and to help protect themselves against HIV.

Ofsted in 2002 reported that schools were not teaching about HIV, and the DfE commissioned Sex Education Forum and National Children's Bureau to produce a toolkit for Key Stage 1 - 4 - Teaching and Learning about HIV which you can find here - its 10 years old but the ideas remain good ones - health warning on some of the information though - it may be out of date so do check it.

So in the prevailing decade since Ofsted found young people did not have good knowledge about HIV and the skills to protect themselves new infections have doubled. PSHE is still not statutory and Ofsted reports that in 40% of schools PSHE is not good enough. That is not a tenable position and we need step change so there is PSHE fit for the 21st Century. We know that homophobia is still rife within many schools, and that funding for targeted LGBT youth work is seen as a luxury and funding is being reduced in parts of the country- what a false economy.

We cannot allow another decade where the number of new infections amongst 15 - 24 year old gay men double so it was pleasing to hear Secretary of State for Education commit to tackling homophobic bullying in schools in her Conference Speech. I look forward to seeing action.

We also need all schools to be required to provide relevant Personal, Social and Health Education for all young people which will provide a solid base for all children and young people. Work like that of which take LGBT role models into school is an important contribution to promoting visibility of gay people. We also need targeted youth work such as Brook's LGBT youth group Work it Out which provides a safe space for young people as they explore and understand their developing sexuality.

And most of all we need visibility - last night i was at an event to celebrate the publication of Executive Diversity in the Financial Times - a list of the top 100 Executives and straight allies.  The founder Suki Sandhu reminded guests of the importance of visibility. If we are to prevent HIV amongst gay men we need to ensure visibility of gay men in schools, and we need to talk talk talk about HIV, about stigma, about infection rates and about homophobia and its impact.  In the public imagination it sometimes feels that HIV has all but become a thing of the past. This data is a big wake up call for all of us.

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