HIV does not discriminate - gay, straight; young, old; European, African - it can affect any of us. To tackle it we all need to do our bit.
World AIDS Day is always a poignant time of year for me. While it provides an opportunity to think about the present battle against HIV-AIDS and the future hope of a cure, my mind turns to the past in remembering the effect AIDS has had on my family.
My cousins, Brian and Stephen, were haemophiliacs. Because their blood couldn’t clot naturally they required regular transfusions. The blood that they were given was contaminated with HIV and they died at the ages of 11 and 16.
As a child I remember seeing Stephen’s skinny body lying on the sofa in the dark, too exhausted to even talk. He died shortly after that. At seven, my family headed to Liverpool to sit by Brian’s bedside as he lay dying at the age of 16.
It was only when I reached 16 myself that I understood what a cruel age that was to die at. At 16 I was looking ahead to my future but Brian knew that AIDS had robbed him of his, as it had his brother’s two years before.
Even until the end he was cheerful and kind to his little seven-year-old cousin. Morphine did what it could to keep the pain away, pipes and needles covered the body of a young man that had been fatally let down.
Stephen was the youngest victim of AIDS, at the time. The country was still in panic over this new and scary epidemic. My family were strong: they stood together to look after the boys despite the huge stigma.
Even as a child I remember once avoiding kissing Brian goodbye, something I still feel great guilt over. Mum was understanding but firm, I kissed him goodbye and knew I was wrong then, as I do now. My childish ignorance was matched by society at the time, great steps have been made but more needs to be done to de-stigmatise the disease.
Brian and Stephen have a great legacy. Many of the anti-retroviral used today were tested on them as their illness progressed. There was nothing to lose. In their suffering they played a part in prolonging the lives of so many others who would come after them.
In the 20 years since Brian died a lot has changed. Where Brian and Stephen faced the end of their young lives, many today will live with the disease managed. But the fight against HIV-AIDS is far from over.
Today there are 100,000 people in the UK infected with HIV, a quarter of them don’t know they have it and each year there are around 6,000 new diagnoses of the disease.
The majority of new HIV cases come from sexual contact, gay and straight, so we can all fight the disease by using condoms and testing regularly so we are aware of our status. Catching the disease early can dramatically increase survival rates and prevent passing on further infection.
HIV does not discriminate – gay, straight; young, old; European, African – it can affect any of us. To tackle it we all need to do our bit.
Brian and Stephen weren’t given a choice – they were betrayed by a system that robbed them of their lives. We do have a choice: to play safe, get tested regularly and be aware of our HIV-status.
I will be thinking of my two young cousins this World AIDS Day. I will also be getting tested so I know my status; I hope you will too.
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