Brighton’s political leadership have written an open letter to Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, volunteering to lead England in normalising HIV testing.
The initiative by Brighton & Hove City Council aims to spearhead the national effort to have no new cases of HIV by 2030.
According to the National Aids Trust, 1 in 16 people living with HIV do not know they have the virus. The open letter states there are 5,700 people undiagnosed in England, and that, with “such a stubbornly high rate of late diagnoses, we all need to pull together.”
The appeal calls on Matt Hancock to make funds available to support Brighton & Hove in a pioneer scheme to roll out testing across health services. To find people who are undiagnosed, the letter says HIV testing must be available when people go to A&E, register for a new GP and in local pharmacies.
Written by Leader of the Council Phélim MacCafferty, the letter is signed by Green MP Caroline Lucas and local Labour MPs Lloyd Russell-Moyle and Peter Kyle.
Brighton and Hove City Council believes a local trial is the “perfect” way to get things started and learn for a national scheme. “We are eager to get this underway and would be honoured to be the first to make it happen”, Cllr MacCafferty said.
Brighton and Hove is home to a large number of people living with HIV. In 2017 it became the first HIV Fast Track City in the UK with a commitment to end the transmission of the virus by 2030.
Although there is not yet a vaccine for HIV, there are treatments that can suppress and control the effects of the virus.
Councillor Sue Shanks, Chair of the Health and Wellbeing Board for Brighton & Hove City Council, said: “Zero HIV by 2030 is most certainly achievable – the science tells us so very clearly. All it takes is commitment and investment.” According to Cllr Shanks, “Brighton and Hove has long been at the forefront of the UK response to the HIV epidemic.” She said the work already happening in the city provided a strong base to make the final push to find the remaining undiagnosed cases.
Cllr Shanks said the scale and speed of mobilising mass testing for Covid-19 has encouraged them in their ambitions. “How could it not?” she said. “Coronavirus doesn’t carry the same stigma and discrimination as HIV, which is why we need to continue to normalise HIV testing and fight HIV-related stigma,” she added.
Groups in favour of Brighton & Hove’s proposal believe making testing commonplace will help end that stigma.
There is a strong voluntary sector in Brighton & Hove willing to support the NHS to deliver the testing rollout, including Terrence Higgins Trust and The Martin Fisher Foundation.
Dr Gillian Dean, Trustee at The Martin Fisher Foundation, said: “Through normalising HIV testing we have the opportunity to bring the HIV epidemic to a close.”
Dr Dean, a consultant in HIV, said: “Imagine even dreaming of that two or three decades ago – and we must pursue this possibility with all our might.”
Richard Angell, Head of Policy at Terrence Higgins Trust, believes existing measures do not go far enough and fail to reach important groups in society. Currently, sexual health clinics provide pre-exposure prophylaxis, (PrEP), a medicine people at risk for HIV take to prevent them getting the virus. Angell said that although sexual health clinics are disproportionately used by women, they are the group most likely not to be offered an HIV test.
According to Angell, the Government was recently forced to buy 10,000 additional testing kits due to a UK-wide surge in HIV home testing following the popular Channel 4 drama ‘It’s A Sin.’ “But there’s still so much to do,” he added.
“The Government has got to put their money where there mouth is.”
Angell said ministers are saying all the right things, but “they’ve got to turn the warm words into an action plan and that’s got to be funded properly by the treasury.”
Brighton and Hove City Council are awaiting a response to the open letter from Matt Hancock.