Each year, on 1 December, we in Wales and communities around the world come together to mark World AIDS Day.
The story of HIV in the UK and Europe is rooted in Wales. Terry Higgins, born and raised in Haverfordwest, was the first named person to die of AIDS-related illness in the UK.
Last year marked 40 years since Terry’s death and the founding of the first HIV response charity in Europe, the Terrence Higgins Trust.
Today, we have a lot to be proud of here in Wales – and Terrence Higgins Trust Cymru, along with our partners, are determined to keep up the momentum to ensure we reach the Welsh Government’s goal to end HIV transmissions in Wales by 2030.
In March, the Welsh Government published the first HIV Action Plan for Wales, along with wide-ranging proposals that focus on testing, prevention, peer support and combating stigma. And thanks to the Action Plan and the hard work of clinicians, volunteers and campaigners, we are making strides towards achieving that 2030 goal.
Last week marked Wales HIV Testing Week which has been created to encourage everyone to take control of their sexual health and regularly get tested. Getting tested in Wales has also never been easier: by going to the Sexual Health Wales website (www.shwales.online), anyone can order a postal STI testing kit confidentially, delivered straight through your door (this is sent discreetly!). Of course, you can also head to your local sexual health service for testing and advice.
Wales has also recently become the first ‘Fast Track’ nation in the world – meaning each region of the country will be served by a dedicated coalition of interested parties including HIV clinicians, local authorities, academic researchers and community groups working on sexual health locally – working together to hit the goals within the Action Plan.
There are, however, still very important strides we need to make together – and the clock is ticking. Collectively, we need to make clear that for HIV, time’s up.
When the 2030 goals are so ambitious, knowledge really is power and currently Wales lags behind England in the kinds of data around HIV that would allow us to more effectively target intervention to prevent transmissions. An effective sexual health case management system has long been promised in Wales and is absolutely crucial to delivering zero transmissions by 2030. The HIV Action Plan provided for the development of such a system, but we now need to see it delivered.
We know only too well that more work is needed to bust the stigma around HIV once and for all. Where advances in availability of testing (in particular postal testing) have meant that more people than ever before in younger age groups are testing for HIV, those aged 35+ in Wales are falling behind, and latest data from Public Health Wales shows that it is in this age group that the majority of new diagnoses of HIV is seen. UK-wide data shows the number of people being diagnosed with HIV later in life continues to grow, with 21% of all new diagnoses being in people aged 50 or over in 2021.
If we are to end new infections of HIV in Wales by 2030, increasing testing in older adults is clearly going to be a crucial step – and busting the stigma around getting tested for HIV, sadly, remains a huge barrier for many.
Only last month in Scotland, Terrence Higgins Trust launches, along with the Scottish Government on an anti-stigma television advert – the first television advert airing anywhere in the UK since the infamous “Don’t Die of Ignorance’ advert of the 1980s – a really promising step forward.
Wales has been without a peer support network for too long, and those living with HIV in Wales deserve access to the same level of support available in the rest of the UK. Given that Wales is currently the only part of the UK without dedicated peer support, it was particularly welcoming for us at Terrence Higgins Trust Cymru to see the HIV Action Plan for Wales commit to funding a HIV Peer Support Network here. This is a strong step forward.
Effective peer support as well as clinical support is so important for people living with HIV to maintain treatment and prevent onward transmission. This serves as a reminder for us of the crucial need for effective peer support if we are to hit the all-important 2030 goal outlined within the Action Plan. Currently, Welsh Government have committed £100,000 to establish a national peer support service, a small pot of money in the grand scheme of things that can make the world of difference – both for those living with HIV and in ensuring those on effective treatment for HIV stick with it.
The pots of funding that underpin the HIV Action Plan, will go a considerable way to getting us to the 2030 goal of no new HIV transmissions in Wales.
Times are, understandably, difficult financially for the Welsh Government at this moment in time. But with these crucial ingredients, I’m confident that Wales will not just be where the HIV story in the UK starts, but where the end of the epidemic begins. And that’s something we can all be proud of.