Opinion

Don’t let the ‘AIDS’ of It’s A Sin be your view of HIV today

We’ve come a long way in the fight against HIV seen in It's A Sin, writes Fraser Wilson from the Terrence Higgins Trust. And worked too hard, with too much still to do, to be taking even one step backwards now. 

Olly Alexander in it's a sin

Russell T Davies' 2021 drama It's A Sin

I’m not a TV reviewer but, if I was, I’d give It’s A Sin five purple aubergines out of five. Because Russell T Davies is telling a story that’s long overdue being told – the emergence and devastation of the AIDS crisis in 1980s London – and doing so with all the power and sensitivity the topic demands. 

But, among my glowing praise, I also have these words of caution: don’t let the ‘AIDS’ you see every Friday night at 9pm – getting worse and worse with each episode – be your view of HIV in the UK today. Because we’ve come a long way in the fight against HIV since then and worked too hard, with too much still to do, to be taking even one step backwards now. 

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That’s why, ahead of the broadcast, we decided at Terrence Higgins Trust to do a whistle stop tour of just some of the medical progress in preventing, testing for and treating HIV.

There’s PrEP, the game-changing pill which stops you contracting HIV and is now available via sexual health clinics. It often feels like the world’s best kept secret. 

And there’s the  biggie – the one that always leads to a “no! Really? Is that actually true?”.  Someone living with HIV and on effective treatment can’t pass on the virus to their sexual partners, with or without a condom. Yes, really.

And, to their absolute credit, Russell T Davies and the ensemble cast have all been incredibly proactive in flagging this progress in numerous interviews to promote the series. 

That’s the good news. The bad news is that public perceptions continue to lag way behind all of this amazing medical progress – despite the changing shape of the epidemic, with near parity in diagnoses between gay and bisexual men and heterosexuals in the latest figures. 

For context of where we are, in our recent poll of public attitudes, we found that over half of UK adults would feel uncomfortable kissing someone living with HIV, despite the virus never being passed on in that way. 

The reason this matters so much – and why it’s crucial It’s A Sin isn’t taken as a lesson in HIV – is that out-dated views still held by so many have a negative impact on the lives of those living with HIV. Whether it’s rejections on dating apps, discrimination in the workplace or being denied treatment at the dentist. It also stops people coming forward to get tested – despite an early diagnosis and access to treatment meaning a normal lifespan. 

Which ultimately all means, to put it plainly, updating the knowledge of as many people as possible about the realities of HIV is absolutely fundamental to achieve our goal of ending new HIV cases by 2030. 

It’s also why It’s A Sin cannot be allowed to further entrench out-dated and inaccurate views of HIV in the public consciousness. Instead, let’s use the many, many conversations it’s starting to talk about all the progress that’s been made. And, although I’m biased, the Terrence Higgins Trust website is a great place to learn.

National HIV Testing Week starts on 1 February and you can order a free HIV test kit to do at home via startswithme.org.uk

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