Today is World AIDS Day, an opportunity for people around the world to come together in the fight against HIV, support those living with the virus and remember those who have died from HIV and AIDS.
Our understanding of HIV has improved vastly, and advances in treatment mean that someone living with HIV can have the same life expectancy as someone who is HIV-free.
In September, world leaders pledged to end the global AIDS epidemic by 2030 as part of the new Sustainable Development Goals. So the theme for World AIDS Day this year is embracing a Fast Track approach to meeting this important target – through front-loading investment, focusing on populations and programmes that will deliver the greatest impact, creating new partnerships and engaging local leadership.
These themes are also reflected in our work to tackle HIV here in England. In the UK, more than 18,000 people with HIV are unaware they have the infection and are at risk of passing the virus on to others.
Last month Public Health England announced seven successful HIV Innovation Fund winners – ground breaking local initiatives targeting prevention work among high risk groups.
To mark World Aids Day 2015, I want to tell you about some of these fantastic projects in more detail.
A targeted approach
An estimated 103,700 people in the UK have HIV. The risk of infection is higher in certain groups of the population, including gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men (MSM) and black African communities.
Among MSM aged 15-44, one in 20 is estimated to have HIV. While rates of infection in the total population are in decline, new diagnoses among MSM have continued to rise. MSM accounted for more than half of all new HIV diagnoses in 2014, with 3,360 men newly diagnosed- the largest number ever recorded.
Among heterosexuals aged 15-44, almost one in every 1,000 is estimated to have HIV, but prevalence is far higher among black African communities - with one in 56 men and one in 22 women .
To really tackle rates of HIV infection we must increase more regular testing and promote safer sexual behaviour, particularly condom use; the seven projects selected by the HIV Innovation Fund work to address both of these issues.
The projects also make an important impact at a local level, meeting the specific needs of their communities, as well as helping to showcase innovative approaches that could be looked to as examples and successfully applied in other areas of the country.
We received more than 90 applications for the £500,000 Innovation Fund from a variety of voluntary sector organisations. The seven successful HIV prevention projects all take a fresh and creative approach to targeting people in their communities who are most at risk from HIV infection:
- My Sauna Assessment Project:Trade Sexual Health is working with Leicester sexual health services to provide a full sexual health screening programme every week within the area’s MSM sex on premises venues. With support from PHE, it is now creating an assessment tool for self-evaluation against best practice criteria, including hygiene levels, staff training and the availability of testing clinics on the premises.
- Interactive contact slip: Sometimes fear or embarrassment can prevent people from telling their sexual partners when they are diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection. SXT has created an interactive contact slip for providers to give to people diagnosed with HIV in London, through which they can share contact details of their sexual partners. The slip is then sent to them anonymously to make sure they access testing and appropriate treatment.
- Testing Faith: Testing Faith helps faith leaders to talk to their congregations and promote better understanding of sexual health, particularly around HIV prevention, treatment and care – addressing some of the stigma around transmission. The programme, aimed specifically at black and minority ethnic communities, is run between sexual health charities NAZ, The Centre for All Families Positive Health and Yorkshire MESMAC across London, Luton and West Yorkshire.
- Let’s Stop HIV: Working through existing Latin American organisations, the project runs workshops providing free HIV testing and information in Spanish and Portuguese about routes of infection, prevention, testing, the importance of early detection and ways to access NHS services. Run by sexual health charity NAZ in partnership with the Coalition of Latin Americans in the UK (CLAUK), the aim is to reach Latin Americans who are at higher risk.
- HIV and health at work – M1 corridor distribution centre project: This project works with large distribution centres in the Midlands along the M1 motorway to bring information on health and HIV, as well as testing, to places where there are large numbers of male workers. Run by Well for Living and partners, the project use text messaging services to reach people who may not have time to get to health services.
- Talk and Test: Run by the LGBT Foundation and Black Health Agency for Equality, Talk and Test aims to tackle late HIV diagnosis amongst MSM and black African communities in Greater Manchester. It aims to provide 1,000 HIV tests in one year by providing testing in community settings and support at-risk people to assess their wider wellness, set health goals and discuss possible risk reduction approaches.
- My HIV Prevention Strategy Tool: This decision-making tool from GMFA and SIGMA Research assists gay men across England to choose which HIV prevention tactic best fits their values and needs – providing them with a range of ideas for reducing their risk while raising awareness about the important of sexual health.
The experience and access to local communities that all of these organisations have make them vital partners in our work to prevent HIV infection, and we can see the themes of the World AIDS Day Fast Track approach across all of their projects.
I’m really pleased to see this extra support for innovative ways to tackle HIV across the country. Now we must capture the lessons learned from these and other innovative projects to determine more effective new ways to tackle old and emerging problems. We must support and harness the great work being done at local level to strengthen our national response.
As UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé said in his World AIDS Day message, we must leave no one behind in the fight against HIV. By supporting strategies that are appropriate, acceptable and accessible to people most at risk of HIV, we can help more people get tested and refer those who test positive to life-changing treatment early on – making an important contribution towards the global fight for elimination.