Earlier in September former Welsh rugby captain Gareth Thomas went public about living with HIV. Days later, Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness told the world that he was diagnosed with the condition seven years ago. Nearly 102,000 people in the UK have HIV – but that number would likely be much higher without the furious activism of Greg Owen.
His efforts set off a chain of events that ultimately saw an English court rule that people must be able to get PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) through the NHS. It’s a preventative pill that protects HIV-negative people from contracting the virus nearly 100 per cent of the time, even without practising safe sex. And getting it to the UK was a fight.
The eldest of six children, Owen grew up in west Belfast until 1998 when he moved to London to attend drama college. It wasn’t until 2012 when Owen heard about PrEP online, after it was approved by regulators in the US. A few years later, he was working part-time in a bar, recently out of a long-term relationship and homeless. He decided he should start taking it to make sure he was protected.
“The only way to get it in 2015 was to go to a sexual health clinic and say that you were possibly exposed to HIV to get PEP [which can sometimes stop someone developing an HIV infection after being exposed],” says Owen, now 39 and working with the Terrence Higgins Trust to increase access to the medication. “One of the pills in that treatment is the one we use for PrEP. So you would go and claim the false risk, get the drugs then throw half of it away.”
Instead, a friend offered him some leftover Truvada, the branded PrEP pill, so Owen made plans to drop by a sexual health clinic for a test – necessary before someone starts on the preventative medication. It came back HIV positive.
— Susan Cole-Haley (@susancolehaley) September 11, 2019