Wednesday 28 June 2017

Britain, after all these years, is still no country for old, gay men

Michael Penn is 76 years old. He was born during the Second World War in 1941. Michael was 45 years old when his partner, Brian, fell ill in 1986. He recalled : 'We were spending the Christmas break at our holiday home in Suffolk. Brian spent all of Christmas Day in bed and on Boxing Day morning I could tell he wasn’t getting better. I called a doctor friend to get his opinion. He took one look at Brian and said we must take him to hospital straight away. Anyone who contracted HIV back then, as Brian had, was almost certain to die. On top of that, there was so much we didn’t know about how the virus worked or how it was transmitted.'

Fifty years ago, Michael was 26 years old when the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 'decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both of whom had to have attained the age of 21.'

Twenty years later Michael recorded : 'On 28 May 1987, Brian died. He was just two months away from his 40th birthday. It was a tragic year for me, as I received my own HIV diagnosis too. Having cared for Brian in his last months, I didn’t know how long I would live and I assumed the worst.'

He also recalled that, back then : 'The Government had recently launched its National Awareness Campaign, 'Don’t Die of Ignorance', featuring tombstones and icebergs, and every household had received the now infamous leaflet. Everywhere I looked there was the idea that HIV was a death sentence.'

In 1990 Michael was told that he needed to go on medication to control the virus : 'At the time only azidothymidine, known as AZT, was available. I was confused about whether I should start treatment. I’d heard about the dreadful side effects and, to be frank, I wasn’t sure if it would help me or hurt me.' In fact, he did start the medication and experienced side effects.

At the age of 55 in 1996, Britain had become a country where Michael had the prospect of becoming an old man : 'My world changed for ever. Combination antiretroviral therapy became available. It was revolutionary. It wasn’t a cure, but it enabled people to live well with HIV, with few, or in my case no, side effects.'

Michael says : 'Today, I take just two pills once a day. Effective treatment works by suppressing the HIV virus. It is reduced so much that it can no longer be detected in the blood. We now know this also means, incredibly, that it can’t be passed on.'

Yet, despite this, he is still, ill at ease : 'I worry about stigma as I grow older and hear stories about terrible treatment of those with HIV in care homes, with staff who have never really had to think about the virus and although I am healthy and speak openly about my status, I have experienced stigma myself. There is still a lot to do to bring public attitudes and awareness up to date with the medical reality.'

To confirm Michael's fears, a recent 'Terrence Higgins Trust Survey' revealed that nearly one in three Britons wrongly believed that HIV can be transmitted by sharing toothbrushes and one in five think that HIV can be transmitted by kissing.

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