Labour’s Luciana Berger: Government’s approach to HIV ‘doesn’t make sense’

PinkNews logo surrounded by illustrated images including a rainbow, unicorn, PN sign and pride flag.

Shadow Minister for Public Health Luciana Berger has said that HIV spending should be prioritised towards prevention, rather than just treatment.

The Labour Party politician spoke to PinkNews at a Westminster event with several HIV charities on groups focussed on tackling increasing rates of HIV infections.

She said: “We’ve heard how so much more is being spent on treatment, rather than prevention, and it just doesn’t make sense for all those people that are affected [by HIV].”

Recently, Berger held an round table event to analyse different viewpoints on the National HIV Prevention Programme, the ‘Halve It’ coalition, HIV testing and PrEP medication.

One of the issues Ms Berger was keen to discuss was the necessity for public knowledge about the virus, which many seem to think is irrelevant now.

While government funding to the National HIV Prevention Programme will remain in place at present, campaigners from the National Aids Trust, the Terrence Higgins Trust, NAZ, and FPA raised the importance of maintaining strong prevention funding alongside treatment.

One of the discussion’s main points was debating how the HIV stigma could be reduced with heightened public visibility and understanding.

Ms Berger said: “I was really, really struck last year at the presentations that were made at World AIDS Day about the fact that 65 percent of the population still don’t know three ways in which HIV is transmitted.”

Because of widespread stigma, many forgo HIV testing or treatment at clinics to avoid judgement, which is why home-testing can be so crucial.

Engaging with HIV-affected individuals was thought to be a vital step to properly handle the situation from an outside perspective.

In particular, HIV-positive minority communities were brought up as groups that require more attention.

She said: “If you reflect on what’s happened over the course of the past five years, within public health, of which sexual health is an element and HIV and support for the LGBT community- there’s many challenges and many issues that I don’t think have been successfully addressed.”

Specifically, campaigning for what HIV means in 2015 is an essential manner of promoting public knowledge- specifically amongst the UK’s youth.

A proponent of compulsory sex and relationship education, she highlighted Labour’s push for the advancement of broader public health programs in schools.

School curriculum that addressed heterosexuality, homosexuality and the existence of HIV/AIDS often resulted in positive reactions.

Berger said: “We need to equip… people with the expertise and the skills and the know-how and the confidence to have healthy relationships and we just don’t have that at the moment in too many of our schools.”

The discussants acknowledged the fact that HIV operates differently than other infectious viruses.

Additionally, outside factors affecting HIV-positive individuals were mentioned, like the competence of healthcare providers.

Economic status can also deeply limit the avenues a person can take to treat HIV.

The risk of buying pre-exposure prophylaxis off of the black market or using post-exposure prophylaxis in place of PrEP is ever-present.

While PrEP is considered a successful drug, a stigma exists that the medication will lead to riskier sex.

However, Berger mentioned the positives as well, like improved treatment methods and the current life expectancy.

She said: “I was looking at the diagnosis- now, if someone is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS at the age of 35, that they can expect to live to the age of 72.”

While great strides have been made with HIV, there are still many facets of the issue that cannot be ignored by the public or the government.

Berger stresses that both she and her party will keep this issue and the LGBT community as priorities.