Today is World Aids Day and, to mark the occasion, The Argus has looked back at the history of the HIV/Aids epidemic in Brighton, some 40 years after the virus was first detected in the city.

We spoke to Phelim Mac Cafferty, leader of Brighton and Hove City Council, about growing up gay during the height of the Aids epidemic and the progress the city is making in eradicating new HIV infections.

Phelim Mac Cafferty grew up at the height of the Aids epidemic and has memories of adverts that were repeated on television warning about the dangers of contracting the virus.

As a gay man in Northern Ireland, Phelim, now 43, described the mood at the time as “quite scary”.

“At that stage, it was not a manageable condition and I suppose that led to some of the irrational scapegoating and prejudice,” he said.

“I lost friends who contracted HIV which later advanced into Aids - that is something I don’t want anyone else to have to deal with.”

Phelim often attends the city’s annual vigil on World Aids Day for those who have from the virus in Brighton and Hove over the decades.

“It is extraordinarily moving, not least because of its length because we have lost so many people,” he said.

The Argus: A vigil is held every year at the Aids Memorial in New Steine Gardens to remember those who have died from the virus in the cityA vigil is held every year at the Aids Memorial in New Steine Gardens to remember those who have died from the virus in the city

Now serving as the council leader for Brighton and Hove, Phelim plays a role in the city-wide drive to eliminate new HIV infections and the eradication of stigma around the virus.

He credits the work of local NHS services, community and voluntary groups and the council’s public health team for their cohesive work to be at the “cutting edge of treatment, fighting stigma and underlining the importance of testing”.

“Together, they are forming this fantastic coalition that are making the city proud,” he said.

“There are so many uncelebrated people in the story of HIV in our city who have been at the cutting edge of tackling HIV locally, nationally and internationally.

“They are the real heroes, as they are the ones making sure this conversation is taken seriously.”

Brighton and Hove became a fast-track city in 2017 as part of international efforts to eradicate HIV infection by 2030.

The programme sees the council, community groups and the NHS work together in order to ensure at least 90 per cent of those living with HIV in the city know their status, with at least 90 per cent of them receiving treatment and 90 per cent of those achieving “viral suppression” - meaning the virus cannot be passed on.

In the five years since becoming the UK’s first fast-track city, Phelim said that there has been “fantastic progress”, exceeding the initial 90-90-90 targets, but he said that there is more work still to be done.

He said: “In the five years since we became a fast-track city, 95 per cent of those living with HIV in the city are diagnosed. Some 98 per cent of those people are on treatment and, of those, almost all have achieved ‘viral suppression’ - which prevents transmission of HIV onward.

“New HIV cases are also continuing to drop, but the virus hasn’t gone away, so we still need to come back to basic messages about safe sex and regular testing.”

The Argus: An example of one of the 'vending machines' that distributes HIV testing kitsAn example of one of the 'vending machines' that distributes HIV testing kits

Part of the work in encouraging more regular testing include the roll-out of vending machines for HIV tests and the introduction of opt-out testing at A&E at the Royal Sussex County Hospital.

These steps, Phelim explained, help take testing away from hospital corridors and into areas to spark conversations around the virus among communities that do not regularly test.

The measures also have the effect of normalising regular testing to check your HIV status, as well as reducing the stigma around the virus.

“It stops HIV from being just something you only talk about in an STI clinic,” Phelim said.

As part of efforts to tackle stigma around HIV, the council is for the first time flying the Red Ribbon flag from its buildings today to mark World Aids Day.

Phelim said: “HIV needs to be viewed in the same way as any other chronic health condition - not just for good health reasons, but also so that people living with the virus can better access support.”

He encouraged people to get tested for HIV in the same way they would regularly visit an optician to get their eyes tested or attend a check-up at the dentist.

Phelim said: “People with HIV can have a completely full life without fear of ever developing Aids or passing it on, as long as they are taking their medication.

“It’s easy to test, it’s easy to treat and it’s impossible to pass on when you manage it properly.”