The Big Interview: Sir Nick Partridge from the Terrence Higgins Trust

6:33pm Monday 3rd December 2012

By Bill Gardner

Saturday was World Aids Day - an opportunity for people around the world to unite in the fight against HIV.

Recent figures suggest around 1 in 100 people in Brighton and Hove is carying the incurable virus.

On the 30th anniversary of Aids charity the Terrence Higgins Trust, chief executive Sir Nick Partridge talks to Bill Gardner about the city's struggle against the killer disease.

 

THE ARGUS (TA): Is enough being done in Brighton and Hove to make people aware of the dangers of HIV?

SIR NICK PARTRIDGE (NP): Sex is not when we are being at our most logical. Love and passion usually take over and people can make stupid decisions.

So we need to make sure that people at risk know exactly how to keep themselves safe from HIV.

In Brighton and Hove we have an active outreach team that works with gay men on a daily and weekly basis.

We want to make sure there is substantial coverage in the gay media and the bars.

I think most gay people do know where to get condoms from and they know the risk of HIV.

(TA): Has AIDS dropped out of the public consciousness? Do we need more of the tombstone ads from the 1980s to boost public awareness?

(NP): In the 1980s AIDS was new and it came as a profound shock to the world. Sex had become much safer and the contraceptive pill had freed women from the fear of unwanted pregnancy.

That shock resulted in a huge media campaign to help tackle the problem and support people who were getting sick and dying.

But it was never going to be possible to sustain that level of fear.

The tombstone ads were appropriate for their time but things are so different now.

The priority is to let people know that HIV is extremely prevalent in Brighton and Hove but there are now excellent drugs that will enable people to live full lives.

Of course there’s a risk that people will become complacent but we can’t expect HIV to be given the same degree of national coverage because that wouldn’t be a good use of money.

Running a big television campaign is hugely expensive and it’s a much better use of limited resources to target those at the greatest risk.

(TA): What about the new generation? Do they know enough about HIV?

(NP): One of the things we have failed to do is to make sure each generation of children get really good sex education in schools.

We have failed to get that part of the national curriculum. It’s so patchy.

I don’t think that we give our children enough support to understand how to keep themselves safe from harm.

If we did that we would create a good basis to move forward.

We need to invest in campaigns that actually mean something to the young people of today rather than the old tombstone campaigns.

I believe the majority of young people know that you should avoid AIDS but much more needs to be done.

(TA): With the massive improvements in the treatment of HIV are people becoming more complacent about practicing safe sex?

(NP): We know amongst gay men the vast majority still see HIV as the big health risk around them.

I don’t think it’s just good drug therapy that has led to complacency. It’s because we have HIV in a better perspective now.

I wouldn’t want to be living with the same level of personal fear that we had in the 1980s but of course we still need to be vigilant.

(TA): Is there still stigma around people living with HIV?

(NP): What has changed most dramatically is the new drug treatments that can keep people healthy.

We no longer see young people getting very thin on hospital wards and dying at the same rates we saw in the 1980s.

But HIV is different to almost any other illness. That has resulted in a continuing level of stigma and discrimination that doesn’t happen with cancer sufferers or any other illness.

The closest comparison would be mental health issues. It’s certainly true that the public perception has not changed as rapidly as we would like.

(TA): What types of discrimination do sufferers experience?

(NP): Many people lead incredibly fulfilled lives. But there are others whose family still find it hard to accept them.

Disclosing that you have HIV is still very challenging. You can’t guarantee that your family or employer or your friends will be supportive.

We deal with lots of young people whose families have completely disowned them – and that’s just terrible.

To help people deal with the stigma we make sure people with HIV can support each other through it.

We ensure they have safe spaces where they know they won’t be judged in that short-sighted way.

(TA): Are residents in Brighton and Hove especially exposed to catching HIV?

(NP): I don’t think Brighton is necessarily more exposed to HIV. I think the city has responded with huge generosity of spirit to this problem.

The work that charities do has seen a huge community response over the last 30 years and the city should be immensely proud of that.

The challenge now is to keep the response vibrant, new and fresh. That’s why World Aids Day is so important. It’s a time for parents to talk to their kids about the disease and to remember all those who have died in Brighton and around the world.

(TA): How is The Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) coping in the recession? Are you struggling for funds?

(NP): This is the longest downturn for decades and it is certainly putting pressure on our finances. We cut our cloth according to our resources.

We are certainly feeling the pinch but we have been very successful at maintaining our charity support. I’d really like to thank everybody who contributes and volunteers.

(TA): What has the Trust achieved in the 30 years since it was founded?

(NP): If you try to imagine the world without the THT there would have been far more people with HIV than there are.

All of us wish that it had been wholly preventable. But in many Southern African countries you can see the scale of what has been averted.

We have been supporting people to know what drugs to take. With our help people have learned how to keep alive and how to stay in jobs and make a valuable contribution.

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