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Tuesday, October 20, 1998 Published at 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK


Campaign to cut stigma of Aids

The campaign encourages people to take a test

The number of people in the UK with Aids is likely to double over the next 10 years, according to a parliamentary report.

BBC Social Affairs Correspondent Andrew Burroughs reports
A report by the All Parliamentary group on Aids says many people are not coming forward for testing and treatment, mainly due to fears over prejudice.

It is urging the government to launch a campaign to combat continuing discrimination against people with HIV and encourage those in at-risk groups to take a test.

The group makes its recommendations on Tuesday following hearings during which medical specialists, carers and those with experience of the disease gave evidence on the latest developments surrounding HIV and Aids.

The number of deaths caused by Aids has fallen sharply in westernised countries as drug treatments improve.

New treatments can suppress Aids effectively in four out of five cases and doctors now believe that - as early diagnosis and treatment can halt the development of the full disease - HIV-testing should become another routine check.

However, the treatments can have extremely unpleasant side-effects and Aids campaigners have called for improved awareness of what a patient faces after diagnosis.

Key recommendations

The all-party group estimates there are 7,000 undiagnosed people with HIV in Britain, while 2,000 new cases are reported every year - lower than many other European countries.

It recommends funding for renewed national public campaigns to tackle prejudice against people with HIV, and create an atmosphere in which testing for infection would become normal.

Some doctors want routine testing for pregnant women at risk because today's treatments mean that virtually no baby need now be born with HIV.

The campaign would advise people to "get tested - early diagnosis could save your life".

Neil Gerrard MP, chairman of the parliamentary group, said: "We ought to be doing everything we can to persuade people to be tested early."

Neil Gerrard, chairman of the parliamentary group, on Aids testing
Mr Gerrard admitted that there was still a large amount of prejudice surrounding Aids.

Mr Gerrard said: "We have to try to deal with the prejudice that exists and it still is there - there is absolutely no doubt about it.

"We have to make sure that nobody is asked questions that are not absolutely essential and relevant."

[ image: Hilary Curtis says there is no need for specialist training]
Hilary Curtis says there is no need for specialist training
Hilary Curtis, of the British Medical Association Foundation for Aids, said testing was not as complex as it once was.

"There has been this big aura about HIV testing with the perception that you need to have specialist training to counsel before you can offer the test," she said.

"We want to change that - we want to say that there should be informed consent but that it is something quite straightforward that any GP, midwife or junior hospital doctor can offer when it is appropriate."

Complex issues

However, Andrew Ridley, director of operations for the Aids charity the Terrence Higgins Trust, disagreed that testing was a straightforward matter.

He said that public awareness of Aids and how the disease works was lower now than it was during the high-profile campaigns of the 1980s.

But he said the trust would not necessarily support all elements of the proposed campaign.

"It's presenting something that is actually very complex in black and white terms. People need to be fully informed to make their own decisions," he said.

"We encourage people to find out the facts about testing and make up their own mind."

A positive result means huge upheaval in someone's private and work life and some people might prefer simply not to know, he said.

"It's still a major life decision for somebody even though the treatment has got much better now," he said.

A positive result can also affect someone's financial status as insurance companies and banks are unwilling to offer cover or loans to people who are HIV positive.

Mr Gerrard said some people had been refused insurance or mortgage protection even after a test had proved negative.

Guaranteed anonymity

Mr Ridley said that it was against insurance companies' code of practice to discriminate simply because someone had taken a test.

[ image: The Terrence Higgins Trust encourages more consideration before testing]
The Terrence Higgins Trust encourages more consideration before testing
He added that even if people feared the stigma attached to having a test, it was already possible to have one with total anonymity.

"People can have a test under totally confidential circumstances if they go to their local genitourinary medicine clinic - what used to be known as STD clinics - then they are protected by legislation," he said.

"It means that the notes at the clinic will be kept separate from the rest of their medical notes by law and will not be disclosed to any insurance firm or employer or any third party for that matter."

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