Colm’s Blog – What the Red Ribbon Means

Since 1988, December 1st has been designated World AIDS Day by the World Health Organisation and this year’s theme is “Global solidarity, shared responsibility”.  It is hard to find accurate statistics, but it is estimated that between 30 and 40 million people have died across the world because of the virus and roughly 40 million people are currently living with HIV.

Here in the UK, there are 105,200 people living with HIV and today is an opportunity to show our support for every one of them, as well as remembering the many friends and loved ones we have lost.

It was in 1988 that I first came to London to train as a counsellor and in my spare time I worked as a volunteer with the Terrence Higgins Trust.  They were very difficult times, when a positive HIV test was almost certainly a death sentence. It is hard to describe the level of stigma and prejudice people faced.  Most of the people I knew then were gay men – many of them very young and when we came into the reception area in the office and saw flowers on the desk, we knew that we had lost another friend.

A few years later, I started working as the manager of the HIV counselling service at Whipps Cross Hospital in East London.  I quickly learned that HIV was not just an issue for gay men.  Many of our Service Users were African women, who were often diagnosed after giving birth when their babies showed signs of immunodeficiency.  We also had a high number of married men who acquired HIV through having sex with other men and were diagnosed only when they were close to death.  For everyone living with HIV, so many more were deeply affected by it.

But I also remember that time as one when I learned how resilient and even heroic people can be.  I think of the determination of friends, lovers and mothers to care for each other even when science and medicine were unable to offer answers and the wider world was quick to judge and condemn.  More than 30 years on, World AIDS Day is an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come and how science and medicine have caught up.  There is still much to do to overcome stigma and prejudice and to ensure that the appropriate treatment is available everywhere across the world. So, it’s right to pause today and remember what that red ribbon means.