Guest post by Aisha-Monic Namurach, Health Promotion Specialist at Terrence Higgins Trust
This year has been challenging for so many of us. In particular, Black communities have endured an emotionally exhausting year. On top of all things Covid-19, we’ve had the brutal killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Each feels personal. The outpouring of emotion led to the Black Lives Matter protests taking place across the globe.
2020 will forever go down in history as the year that the world began to not just pay attention to the injustice and discrimination Black people endure, but the scale of racism experienced day-in, day-out. About time; I for one was getting tired of waiting.
I am a woman of colour – mixed race, Black African, White European (Welsh, Italian and Ugandan to be precise). When I was young, anything connected with “back home” – as Uganda was known as in my house – fascinated me. Once referred to as the pearl of Africa, Uganda in the 1980s had one of the highest infection rates for HIV and AIDS worldwide.
For this reason, HIV was spoken about in my household. However, it was too often associated with death of loved ones and people back home. I think, to be fair, this may be where my passion for HIV health promotion started. I wanted to play my part in helping to debunk HIV stigma within the community, and improve the lives of people living with HIV. Working in sexual health, I see up close and personal that Covid and racism have magnified the inequalities facing Black communities. But it does not have to be this way.
HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was – it is life changing, not life threatening. If you have HIV, the sooner you start treatment, the better it is for your health – the right medication protects you from illnesses which could shorten your life. People on effective treatment cannot pass on HIV. Fact. HIV medication works by reducing the amount of the virus in the body to’ undetectable’ levels. With levels of HIV so low, the virus cannot be passed on. The ‘lingo’ is having an ‘undetectable viral load’.
The sad truth is not enough people know how an HIV diagnosis has changed. HIV stigma exists everywhere. The reality of that stigma within the Black African community has a detrimental impact on the high rates of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) diagnoses Black people face in the UK.
According to Public Health England (PHE), rates of sexually transmitted infections are highest in Black communities, especially Black Caribbean. Black African communities are one of the groups most affected by HIV in the UK. Almost half (44%) of new HIV diagnoses among heterosexuals in the UK are Black African men and women – despite making up less than 2% of the British population.
We need to talk about racial inequalities in sexual health.
This truth is so pernicious when there is a wonder drug out there that stops HIV transmission. Pre-exposure prophylaxis, better known as PrEP, is for people who are HIV-negative. It is the treatment those at risk of HIV transmission have been waiting for. When taken correctly, it is nearly 100% effective at stopping transmission from sex.
However, it feels like PrEP is a closely guarded secret, with few in the Black community ‘in the know’. My team at Terrence Higgins Trust has used Black History Month to launch this PrEP Protects campaign. We aim to turn the dial up on PrEP knowledge in Black communities. Gay and bisexual men have already shared knowledge of its effects, and take up has not just been huge but has really made a difference.
October 2020 marked PrEP finally becoming free on the NHS. For reasons beyond me, you can only pick up PrEP at sexual health clinics – not parts of the NHS most Black women and men often frequent. It is like putting new batteries behind the shop counter so no one can see they are available. This has got to change! Terrence Higgins Trust, along with others, are calling on the government to make PrEP available beyond the clinics and into GP surgeries, maternity units and community pharmacies. We will not rest until PrEP is accessible to all.
HIV affects Black communities. PrEP could really change that, but not if it remains unknown and hidden from view. As with everything, getting access to PrEP seems unnecessarily hard, and harder still for Black communities. Black women are taking a lead in sharing knowledge of PrEP’s availability – we are fed up of waiting.
Call THT Direct on 0808 802 1221 for support, advice and information, or email on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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