Address by the Lord Mayor of Norwich

Councillor Brenda Arthur, given during the World AIDS Day Service 1st December 2015 at St John's, Timberhill.

It's good to see so many people here today to mark World AIDS Day to celebrate the lives of those who are no longer with us as a result of the illness and to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are living with HIV.

The theme of World AIDS Day this year is: "Think Positive: Rethink HIV". How far we have moved on!

In the 1980s I had heard little about HIV and AIDS. My first real impression of its magnitude - of what it meant to us all - came from the tombstone adverts that hit our TV screens in 1986.

Prior to that, despite reports of AIDS' deadly nature reaching us from the States, the British authorities were slow to respond. Perhaps it was the headlines, which spoke of the gay plague and the fact that those most at risk were gay men, and intravenous drug users, which meant that there was outright hostility from some quarters. There was nothing positive about how we thought about HIV then. Indeed, it took from 1982 until Terrence Higgins' death in 1985 for our government to decide to open needle exchange programmes for drug users. Three years in which people were dying.

However, eventually Norman Fowler and the Chief Medical Officer Sir Donald Acheson spearheaded a campaign and established a committee chaired by Willie Whitelaw. And so the adverts happened together with a massive investment of some £73 million for the development of the national AIDS public education programme.

The adverts were deliberately shocking. Those of you who can recall them will remember volcanic eruptions with doom-laden images of cascading rocks giving way to a tombstone being chiselled. Then John Hurt's ominous voiceover spoke of a deadly disease for which there was no known cure and finally we saw the words etched on a blackened grave: "AIDS: Don't die of ignorance". Pretty scary stuff. Indeed some tabloid newspapers printed scare stories as news. People were afraid of gay men and for example feared that a gay plumber might infect their toilet cistern or that they could catch AIDS from public swimming pools. But in hindsight the experts say that the adverts were successful as they encouraged people to talk about sex and, more importantly, safer sex. Since then I believe that overall the general public's understanding of the disease has changed dramatically.

We now know that AIDS can affect anyone. Africa has over 65% of the world's cases of of AIDS and the empowerment of women and the lives of children are affected exponentially in that continent.

While there is still no cure, treatment can control HIV and enable people to live a long and fulfilling life. Indeed, people living with HIV can expect a near normal lifespan if they are diagnosed promptly. And San Francisco, the city which has been the centre of an AIDS epidemic, is now a proving ground for new strategies to manage it. The city aims to become the first city in the USA with no new infections, no deaths and no stigma for people with HIV. The new approach focuses on early intervention and getting the virus under control quickly before it can penetrate and damage organs. By suppressing the viral levels there is also a public health benefit because it makes the transmission of the disease less likely and offers the possibility of the human defence mechanism fighting and eradicating the virus itself.

So stark and potentially frightening as those adverts back in the 80s were, they started a debate - a debate in which, while some prejudice still exists, it is far outweighed by a greater understanding. The adverts, the leaflets through doors, the TV soap stories have all helped to banish myths and bring the true reality to the fore. That, allied with investment in research and the invaluable work of organisations such as the Terrence Higgins Trust and EAST here in Norwich is enabling people to speak more openly. This in turn leads to people being more prepared to seek advice and help if they feel they may have been exposed to the virus and so access that early intervention which is so vital. It has raised awareness of the way we treat blood, seeking to ensure that the virus is not spread through contact with infected blood. It has made us all aware of the need for safe sex not only to eliminate HIV but also other sexually transmitted diseases. However, more people than ever are living with HIV in this country. Last year there were over 600 newly diagnosed and of those, two fifths were diagnosed late. Late diagnosis is most common in heterosexual men and women. So there is clearly more work to be done to raise awareness of the risks of the disease among heterosexuals.

Here in Norwich we have seen many changes and I want to acknowledge the tireless work of local organisations and volunteers for all they do to educate us all and to provide very practical support and advocacy. I want to share with you just one case study from 2012 which demonstrates how this has worked for one man who I will call David.

David was working long hours to send money home to Brazil to educate his three daughters. He became depressed and over a period of a few weeks he stopped taking his Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART). As a result he was admitted to hospital with TB meningitis and spent at least two weeks in the intensive care unit after which he was moved to a general ward. During this time he was referred to EAST by the HIV specialist nurse. While in hospital over a period of about two months he lost his job and was made homeless from his privately rented room in a shared house of multiple occupancy.

So following his discharge from hospital with assistance from EAST he went to the city council offices and presented as homeless. By the end of the day the city council had accepted duty of care and he was given temporary accommodation. He at least had a roof over his head. The following day the telephone claim for jobseekers' allowance was made from the EAST office and an appointment made with a job advisor. Although he was still weak EAST staff and volunteers took him to this interview and he remained motivated. David's jobseekers' allowance commenced and he started making a contribution to his rent and saving some of his money.

He was referred to a local housing charity and received visits from one of their support workers. Within 4 to 6 weeks he was successfully housed in a local authority flat. Having almost nothing to his name, he was helped by both charities to secure furniture and white goods to help him make a home.

Throughout this time he was transported for regular visits to the GUM (genitourinary medicine) clinic to monitor his HIV progress and also to check that his medication for TB was continuing to be effective.

With his confidence building he was proactive in accessing free courses in IT as well as other training sessions while all the time seeking employment. He was eventually successful so his jobseekers allowance ceased within a year. He continues to be in full time employment and his medication for TB has ceased. So he was fortunate to have support from a range of organisations working together with him.

Others of course in the past have not been so fortunate but World AIDS Day is not about dwelling on tragedy, it's overwhelmingly about celebrating what can be achieved when you harness the hope and optimism of people. For Norwich is about nothing if it is not about people harnessing the positive. An example is the way through the pride movement that gay men, lesbians and transgendered people decided to stand up and be counted, to claim their rightful place in our society. Norwich Pride is now well established and is considered to be the best one in the East of England. It's a day when the whole of the city centre becomes a rainbow and everyone can feel safe and enjoy being themselves. We now have to build on all our successes so that together we can help ensure that the Terrence Higgins Trust vision is delivered, a vision for a world where all people with HIV live healthy lives free from prejudice and discrimination and good sexual health is a right and reality for all.