Grant Sugden is CEO, Waverley Care

A WORLD without HIV – could it be possible?

Casting our minds back to only a few decades ago, this would have seemed unimaginable. Fearmongering and homophobia were rife, and an advert featuring a gloomy tombstone with the word "AIDS" told the British public that a deadly virus was spreading through sex. "Don’t die of ignorance", the infamous tagline, continues to define how many understand HIV today.

HIV-related stigma continues to harm the lives of the over 6000 diagnosed people living with HIV in Scotland today. A recent study by the National AIDS Trust found that most members of the public would be uncomfortable having a relationship with someone who lives with HIV. Only a third of people agreed that they have sympathy for all people living with HIV, regardless of how they acquired it, and many associated HIV with promiscuity and irresponsible behaviour.

Society’s view of HIV remains rooted in outdated beliefs of the past – and yet, we have come so far. Thanks to ground-breaking antiretroviral treatment, people living with HIV cannot pass the virus through sex and can live long, healthy lives. Scotland could become one of the first countries in the world to have zero new HIV transmissions, and the Scottish Government has committed to achieving this by 2030. But how do we get there? How do we stop being stuck in the past, and look towards a future without HIV/AIDS in Scotland and beyond?

One step towards getting there is widening access to PrEP, a medication taken to prevent HIV. Scotland was one of the first countries in the world to make PrEP available in sexual health clinics, however groups such as communities living in rural and remote Scotland feel it is inaccessible to them. We must ensure that anybody who is eligible and wants to take PrEP can do so with no barriers.

We also need to increase HIV testing. In order to find people living with undiagnosed HIV, we must increase availability and frequency of tests. Earlier this year, hospitals in London introduced opt-out HIV testing in emergency departments, and this has been incredibly successful in finding and treating those living with HIV undiagnosed. To get to zero new transmissions, we must introduce opt-out testing and find hard-to-reach people who may be living with HIV without knowing it.

We won't get to zero transmissions with these actions alone – we must also end HIV stigma. At Waverley Care, we hear heart is breaking stories of people living with HIV feeling guilt, shame and disgust at themselves because of their status. Tomorrow is World AIDS Day, a good time for focus on challenging negative attitudes and outdated beliefs about HIV whenever you hear them, as education is the only way stigma can be overcome. We cannot move forward if ignorance holds us back.

Reaching zero new HIV transmissions is within our grasp. It is not a pipe dream or throwaway policy commitment – we can get there. A future without HIV is in sight, but we need bold leadership and action to get there.