By Hugo Greenhalgh
LONDON, Nov 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Singer Elton John has joined leading British HIV/AIDS charities in calling for wider HIV testing to halt new transmissions in England within a decade, amid concerns that COVID-19 has affected access to tests and medication.
To mark Worlds AIDS Day on Tuesday, England's first HIV Commission — established by the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), National AIDS Trust (NAT), and Elton John AIDS Foundation — will publish 20 recommendations to eradicate new HIV cases by 2030.
They call for HIV testing to be standard practice for patients registering with a new doctor, undergoing routine smear tests, or being admitted to hospitals' emergency departments.
Under the charities' proposals, tests would also be available at pharmacies in areas with a high prevalence of HIV.
"One thing we've learned this year is the importance of testing, and testing for HIV is at the core of ending new cases of HIV in England," said John, whose charity has raised almost half a billion dollars in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
"Making HIV testing available and normalised throughout the health service not only means people can be treated but by testing becoming routine, this removes some of the stigma that's holding us back," he said in a statement.
More than 38 million people worldwide are currently infected with HIV, and the AIDS pandemic has killed about 33 million people since it began in the 1980s.
Approximately 100,000 people in Britain are living with HIV.
'Stigma and discrimination'
The HIV Commission will recommend that England aim to become the first country to end new HIV transmissions by 2030, striving for an 80% reduction by 2025.
"That goal is completely attainable," Deborah Gold, chief executive of the NAT told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "But it won't be if we don't do anything to achieve it and just carry on the way we are."
Concerns have grown in recent months that coronavirus lockdowns might have hampered recent advances that saw new cases in Britain drop by 10% between 2018 and 2019 and by 34% since 2014, according to THT figures.
But while access to PrEP, the daily anti-HIV pill, and HIV tests might have faltered, the countrywide lockdowns may have had a beneficial effect in terms of breaking the "chain of HIV transmissions" as fewer people were having sex, Gold said.
"It's too soon to know what's going on in terms of new HIV diagnoses," she added.
Ant Babajee was working as a BBC journalist in southwest England when he was diagnosed with HIV in 2007. Alongside the initiative, Babajee, 42, is calling on the British government to provide a national framework and specialist support for people currently living with HIV.
"Even if we get to that brilliant target of zero new cases of HIV by 2030, there will still be a lot of us, like me, living with HIV," he said. "And it's absolutely vital that we tackle the stigma and discrimination that surround HIV."
The British government is due to respond to the HIV Commission's recommendations on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)