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 Brighton resident John Jaquiss, a member of an HIV patient panel in the city and volunteer with the Terrence Higgins Trust, about his experience of living with the virus.

For John Jaquiss, Covid was his second epidemic.

He had already seen HIV sweep through the gay community in Brighton.

John said that the pandemic has brought back memories of the 1980s and 90s, where the freedom that LGBTQ+ people felt was abruptly cut short by an unknown virus that left people under a cloud of fear.

He said: “You wanted to carry on and get on with our lives, but we had this unknown thing and people were dying.

“Suddenly there were condoms whenever you went into a bar because there was a sense you needed to have condoms with you to protect yourself.

“It presented a very strong and constant reminder of the virus, in the same way that wearing face masks has been for Covid.”

John, now 67, said that a huge stigma surrounded the virus and was not helped by press coverage at the time and the government’s Don’t Die of Ignorance public information campaign.

He said: “That tombstone advert scared people but also created massive stigma that still exists to this day.”

Like many gay people who lived through that era, John remembers several friends contracting the virus, and sitting by their bedsides before they died.

He said: “Two of my closest friends and confidants, who were so special to me, told me ‘John, we’ve just had our HIV test, we’re both positive and we’re going to die’.

“It was the most heart-wrenching thing. I had been brought up in a relatively religious family but with them, I could be honest and talk about anything with them.”

One of the pair died just two years later, aged 29.

John said that, when he took his first HIV test in 1991 after starting a new relationship, he was “petrified” of a positive result, as there was no medication available at the time for the virus.

Medication became available in 1996, but John remembers that some of his friends had to take a strict regimen of drugs in order to stay alive.

He said: “I remember being shown by one man the medication he was on at the time. He was having to take multiple tablets, in double figures, each day.

“I remember seeing them all and was shocked.”

The early medication also had “nasty” side effects, which affected the digestive system and even caused bodily deformities.

John took another HIV test in 2000, which came back negative, but he was surprised when he then tested positive the following year.

He said: “It was a shock. They asked me if it was what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t at the time.”

John also said that he was lucky to be diagnosed at a very early stage.

Despite this, there was no guarantee that the medication in the early 2000s would work for more than a few years.

“I didn’t expect to be here now - I thought if I could live to the age of 60, I would be lucky,” he said.

After following a strict timetable for medication, he is now able to take just one pill a day and said he has no side effects whatsoever.

John now works alongside the Terrence Higgins Trust and visits schools to help educate younger generations about the virus.

He said: “I love to be able to help educate other people about HIV, because it is all about breaking down stigma and normalise things around the virus.”

John also expressed praise for Brighton and Hove’s programme of rolling out opt-out testing in A&E and said he would like to see regular testing for HIV “everywhere blood is taken”.

“It is only when we normalise things and automatically test for HIV that we will identify the remaining cases and have the right peer support to make those people feel comfortable with the condition,” he said.

John encouraged everyone to ensure they know their HIV status, particularly heterosexuals as greater numbers of straight people have been contracting the virus in recent years.

He said: “You could be living with HIV and not realise it, and if you are that could be impacting upon your body.

“The sooner you know and the sooner you are on medication, the better.”