Daisy from Kampala, Uganda, Jay Liu from Guang Jo, China, and Nick from Glasgow are three people who you would not expect to find in one room, but in the last few weeks they have been sharing a silver tour bus and travelling the length and breadth of the UK. To audiences on University campuses, and even in Parliament, they have been sharing the stories of how they contracted HIV, and the many and varied battles they have fought since. On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of meeting them when they turned up in Leeds.
Jay, Daisy and Nick spoke to an audience of about 40 rather damp students who made it to the event in spite of the biblical weather. Their accounts were eloquent, often painful, and deeply moving.
Hearing the stories first hand brought to life the familiar scenarios which are rarely discussed and all but forgotten by the UK media. As a medical student, it made me aware of the narrowness of the medical curriculum, and its failure, despite recent efforts, to cover the broader context of illness.
The problem of HIV remains enormous, and it is clear that technology alone is not an answer. Policy change, a redistribution of existing technologies and social change to end stigma are the biggest goals now. Nick said himself that the one thing he can’t accept about his illness now is that he can live symptom free, while across the world HIV is destroying lives.
The pharmaceutical industry is guilty of pushing for long patents for their medicines. It is claimed that this is needed to cover development costs, but it is clear that enormous profits are being made, at the expense of those who need the medicines most.
Free trade agreements currently being instigated by the EU under pressure from Big Pharma threaten to restrict generic production of ARVs in India and Thailand. This would push up prices, and be a life sentence for a great many people living with HIV in the developing world. The EU says the FTAs will benefit poor countries, but the fact that the agreements are taking place behind closed doors is testament to their immorality. As citizens of the UK, these agreements are happening in our names, but we don’t know what is being agreed!
As part of the speaker tour, the Stop Aids campaign has collected 100s of letters, written on transparent acetate to be sent to British MEPs, calling for them to boycott any free trade agreement that is non-transparent, or that contains conditions that might restrict access to medicines. If you want to support the campaign, write to your MEP or sign the petition online.
Jay, Daisy and Nick were so inspiring because their efforts have created tangible change for HIV sufferers where they live. As future graduates in one of the most powerful nations in the world, where we have a democracy that allows us to speak up without fear of persecution, we have a duty not to ignore these stories but to publicise them far and wide, and to put pressure on our government to renew its response to HIV both in the UK and abroad.