'Police comments about HIV and spit masks show education is more important than ever'

HIV awareness needs to start with authority figures, writes Hadley Stewart on World AIDS Day.


World AIDS Day is upon us, so now is as good a time as any to educate ourselves about HIV. Just last week we saw a nation-wide campaign rolled out to encourage people to get tested, with Prince Harry and other influential figures attended local testing centres as part of National HIV Testing Week. For people living with HIV today, they are able to manage their condition with medication and continue to lead healthy and happy lives. Yet despite this medical progress, many people remain unaware or misinformed about HIV, resulting in further stigmatisation of those living with the condition.

Avon and Somerset Police Force issued an apology last week after coming in for fierce criticism from many HIV organisations. The Force had released a press statement regarding plans to introduce so-called “spit guards”, as a result of an increase in the number of incidents involving officers being spat at by members of the public. Nobody is denying that police officers are faced with extremely challenging situations during the course of their work, but the reasons behind the introduction of these hoods left many rightly aggrieved about the force’s knowledge on HIV.

In their press statement, which has since been amended, the Force stated that they wished to introduce the hoods because it would “prevent the transmission of Hepatitis, HIV and tuberculosis.” Given that HIV cannot be passed on through saliva, the statement was based on clear and longstanding misinformation about the virus. In fact they are not alone, given that some people living in the UK still think that HIV can be passed on through saliva or sharing a toothbrush. This is despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps what was more alarming was not the fact that there is still misinformation about HIV, but that this came from a trusted authority like the police force. Whilst we may have focused efforts towards educating “at risk” groups, such as gay and bisexual men, have we overlooked people who come into contact with members of the general public as part of their jobs? I’d argue that greater education about HIV people in positions of authority - such as police officers, social workers and teachers - may begin to break down some of the misconceptions about the virus. This would empower those working in public-facing roles, and reduce any stigmatising views previously held about those living with HIV.

That being said, it’s equally important to reflect on where these anxieties and misconceptions came from. At the end of this week, World AIDS Day will unite people across the globe in remembering those who have passed away as a result of the disease. Many of those we will be remembering died at a time when treatment for HIV was inexistent or ineffective, and knowledge about how the virus was transmitted was still limited. This lack of knowledge, coupled with a lack of treatment, resulted in people being fearful of contracting the virus and those living with HIV.

Today we are still very much living with the after effects of this fear. Although decades and medical development may now separate those living with HIV today from those who died during the eighties and nineties, the fear and stigmatisation still live on. It is only by being open to educating ourselves about HIV, will we be able to overcome these issues within broader society.

Avon and Somerset Police demonstrated that there is still a lack of education about HIV. As a community, we must strive to expand our own understanding of HIV and what it means to live with the virus in 2017. We must call out abusive and discriminatory behaviour towards those living with HIV, which includes individuals within our community that feel it is acceptable to marginalise HIV positive gay and bisexual men on dating and hook up apps. Medicine has allowed those living with HIV to lead healthy lives: Now it’s time to educate ourselves and others so that societal attitudes finally catch up with the medical development.

Follow Hadley Stewart on Twitter @wordsbyhadley.