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HIV stigma, fear linger in UK as infection rates continue to rise

02 July 2015, 14:27

London - Rich paces the cramped, dimly-lit living room in despair, fearful of losing his friends, family and career as he struggles with the realisation that he has HIV.

"Maybe I ought to put a bell around my neck, wear a sign and run around screaming 'AIDS! AIDS! AIDS!'", the gay American man shouts at his partner Saul.

One of the first plays about AIDS, "As Is" revolves around a dysfunctional young gay couple whose lives are thrown into chaos by the HIV epidemic that swept through New York in the early 1980s.

The play opened at the Trafalgar Studios in London on Wednesday night to mark the 30th anniversary of its first performance in the United States.

For director Andrew Keates, who was diagnosed with HIV during a production of the play in 2013, the shame, fear and misinformation surrounding the incurable virus in "As Is" still resonate in Britain more than 30 years later.

"I've met hundreds of people who have been diagnosed but are too frightened to talk about it because of the stigma that remains," Keates told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "It isn't a death sentence like it once was, but it is a social taboo."

There are about 110,000 people in Britain living with HIV, a number that has almost doubled in the last decade, and one in four have not been diagnosed and are unaware they have the virus, according to the National Aids Trust.

Of the 6,000 people in Britain newly diagnosed in 2013, more than half were gay men, the charity said.

"People living with HIV who are not diagnosed don't have the drugs they need, they are infectious and the virus is spreading like wildfire all over London and Britain," Keates said.

Jonathan Blake, one of the first people diagnosed with HIV in London in 1982, will be answering questions after the "As Is" performances on July 7 and 15.

He said the outlook on HIV in Britain and the United States in the 80s was "very, very bleak".

"There was this absolute fear about what was befalling seemingly healthy gay men, who would suddenly take ill for no apparent reason and die in appalling circumstances," said Blake, who attempted to kill himself after being diagnosed with HIV.

"Your head is messed up, you have this killer virus coursing through your veins, you feel like a pariah... HIV was considered a gay plague that we (gay men) had brought upon ourselves - it was horrid," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Alarmed at the number of gay men in Britain being diagnosed with HIV, Blake said that better sex education is necessary, especially in schools.

People living with HIV can take antiretroviral medication to lower the amount of virus in their blood, reducing the risk of transmission to their sexual partners.

But Keates said spread of the virus was being fuelled by casual sex apps on smartphones, and the fact that many gay men fail to take any precautions aside from merely asking other men if they have HIV.

The growing popularity of such apps in European countries where discrimination against homosexuality is rife is threatening to increase the number of HIV cases in the region, according to a study published last month in the journal AIDS.

The audience at the play is being offered rapid HIV testing, while the theatre is hosting an AIDS memorial by encouraging people to cover the walls of the auditorium with messages.

"I want people to be inspired to get tested... if one person comes and sees the play and gets tested and is positive for HIV, then they could receive life-changing treatment," Keates said.

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- Reuters

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