Comment: Cutting the HIV prevention budget by 50% will massively undermine the fight against HIV

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Charles Smith, the Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate for Maidenhead, writes of his concern at reports the government may cut funding to the National HIV Prevention programme for England by 50%.

When Public Health Minister, and Tory Member of Parliament for Battersea, Jane Ellison recently said: “I fully support the aims of the Halve It campaign” we had no idea that the comments actually foreshadowed a very different kind of halving: a government plan to slash the national HIV Prevention England budget by a staggering 50%.

Regretfully, for the Public Health Minister, the concept of ‘halve it’ has nothing to do with reducing late diagnosis and reducing HIV infection rates, but has everything to do with cutting an essential national public health service, by a devastating margin.

The government’s new plan is to cut the HPE budget from its current level of £2.45m per year to just £1.2m in 2015-16. Cutting the HIV prevention budget in this way will massively undermine the fight against the spread of HIV nationally. This is an extremely serious issue of public health and wellbeing.

The government has provided funding for a national HIV prevention programme since inception in 1996. Over the past three years the current programme has been funded via HPE. HPE delivers a nationally coordinated programme of HIV prevention work with UK-based black African people and with gay men/men who have sex with men. This is particularly important, as, in England, two populations continue to be disproportionally affected by HIV: gay and bisexual men, and black African men and women.

HPE has tangible objectives to increase HIV testing to reduce undiagnosed and late-diagnosed HIV, support sustained condom use, and other behaviours which prevent HIV infection, and to tackle stigma within both communities and more widely.

None of these areas are trivial or marginal to the aim of HIV prevention, and so it is difficult to understand the rationale for cutting the funding. In fact, making these cuts appears to be a very dangerous move, as HIV infection rates continue to increase in England. Last year, 5,493 people were diagnosed with HIV in England. The United Kingdom saw the highest-ever number of new diagnoses among gay and bisexual men. It is also estimated that 25% of people living with HIV are yet to be diagnosed.

While local authorities should invest in HIV prevention as part of their public health responsibilities, research by charities such as the National AIDS Trust has shown that less than 0.1% of the public health allocation in high HIV prevalence areas is being spent on primary HIV prevention. It is the view of such charities that local authorities “need the support of a national programme to maximise the effectiveness of their HIV prevention activities.” This is part of an evidence-based assessment for the need for a clear and adequately funded national HIV prevention strategy.

The government should therefore maintain investment in HPE, at least at existing levels, in order to protect, promote and improve the public health of the nation. Now is not the time for a complacent easing-off from essential prevention work.

If we can halt the spread of HIV through prevention programmes, then we not only save and improve lives, but for those keen to see tangible financial benefits we know that long-term savings can be made from early diagnosis and effective prevention. Unfortunately, the government is taking the short-term, retrograde step of cutting the funding, which can lead to increased HIV rates that can require lifelong treatment, rather than having the progressive, long-term vision to see the enormous and valuable benefits of continuing with a properly funded, national HIV prevention programme.

Charles Smith is the Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate for Maidenhead.

This article was originally published on Progress