Tuesday, 16 June 2015

AIDS, the fashionable disease

One of the supposed controversies of the recent general election campaign was Nigel Farage's suggestion that new migrants to the UK should be required to test negative for HIV before being issued with a visa. This generated the predictable howls of indignation from many such as The Terrence Higgins Trust who said it showed “an outrageous lack of understanding” while Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood accused him of "stigmatising" people with the disease. 

So just to make sure I'm not, apparently like Farage, simply lacking an “understanding” of HIV I went and had a look at the Wikipedia page. As I thought all along, HIV is a horrible infection which untreated leads to a slow death as the immune system breaks down. It's now manageable, but not curable, through expensive drugs. HIV is transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids, and is fortunately very rare, with just under 100,000 known sufferers in the UK, according to AIDS charity Avert. Certainly then, it's not something you want. 

Farage's point was that we should block new migrants who are already infected with HIV. It sounds, on the face of it fairly sensible. We already screen for Tuberculosis, a less serious - though admittedly more contagious - disease, suggesting that we don't have a problem in principle with "discriminating" against carriers of contagious diseases. There are arguments about the practicalities of it, and about the actual cost and prevalence of this sort of long term health tourism, but so far as I can tell no-one has campaigned against "stigmatising" those with tuberculosis. "Discriminating" against them is a long standing part of our immigration policy. Extending this to cover HIV seems like a sensible move for the UK, whose National Health Service is already stretched.

So why the big fuss about this particular statement? Was Farage saying that HIV sufferers are bad people? Was he saying we should paint a red cross on their door and burn their clothes? Or could it be because HIV and AIDS have become a cause célèbre for a certain group of people? And, quite insanely, they are treating "discrimination" against people with a highly infection disease with the same sort of horror as they would treat discrimination along racial or gender lines. Why on earth would you even approach the question in those terms? Are there any advocacy groups who campaign against stigmatising people with stomach cancer, or seeking to end discrimination against people with gonorrhea?

It's important to understand, though not always widely known, that AIDS disproportionately affects certain groups - homosexuals and those who inject drugs, and that it's especially prevalent amongst blacks. And no, this isn't the propaganda of some far right American religious group; this is from National AIDS Trust here. This demographic appears to have given it a sort of cachet amongst a certain part of the media and political establishment. In the 80s such figures as Freddie Mercury had AIDS. In the fictional town of Walford that is home to Eastenders an improbably high proportion of heterosexual white people were struck down with the disease, and just up the road the disease featured in Grange Hill far more often than I remember it featuring in my own school at the same time.

Photographer Edo Zollo's Stand Tall Get Snapped project epitomises this attitude. Photographing 30 people with HIV to, in his own words, "expose the still widely held misconception, that HIV is largely restricted to gay men and people of black African origin." A curious aim, since as we’ve already seen the disease does indeed disproportionately afflict these groups. Even the (scarcely hard line liberal) Daily Mail oozes this sentiment here, reporting on some of Zollo's subjects, starting with the story of Rachel, who contracted the disease 8 years ago and found an unknown well of positivity. The article is interspersed with photos of other sufferers such as one lady called Amanda from Glasgow, who apparently "calls her 'visitor' Betsy as we had to share the same body. I'm in a happier place because of my journey with her" If I'm reading that correctly, she actually believes that contracting a terminal illness has been a good thing. 

Of course people do find strength in adversity, and if the people quoted in this article find comfort in this manner then it's not for me to tell them they're wrong. The question is whether this fashionable metropolitan drum should be banged at the expense of sensible public health policy, and I can't really think of any earthly reason why it should. 

What Farage said about restricting the immigration of HIV positive people was simply sensible policy as used by Australia and until recently the United States amongst others. The reaction was the shrill fury of what amounts to a fundamentalist sect who believe on some level that HIV is a badge of honour and a passage into the rarified kingdom of liberal righteousness. This is an absolutely ludicrous basis on which to set policy on immigration or anything else.