Drink and Drugs News DDN May 2020 - Page 11

CULTURE A TIME FOR LIFE AND LOVE What lessons can we learn from the ’80s AIDS crisis, asks Bill Nelles ‘B y the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.’ (Macbeth) In the time since I wrote last month (DDN, April, page 8), so much has happened to change our lives beyond all recognition, causing immense grief and sadness. So today I was thinking about the similarities and differences between the AIDS epidemic of the last century and our current COVID health crisis, and seeing if some of the tactics we used then could be adapted to today’s situation. AIDS caused a lot of the same fear and panic that we’re seeing now. However, attitudes changed when it became clear that the HIV virus could only infect people by direct exchange of body fluids such as blood and semen. It still took some years before it was generally accepted that HIV was not spread by touch or cough droplets – it was behaviour that spread the virus, not casual contact. COVID-19 is very different. It spreads rapidly through casual contact such as coughing and sneezing. It has a short incubation period before symptoms emerge – although people at this stage can spread it to others – unlike HIV which destroyed the immune system over months and even years. The vast majority of people with AIDS died before we could treat their infections arising from impaired immune systems and develop the antiretroviral drugs that led to people leading almost normal lives. WWW.DRINKANDDRUGSNEWS.COM So, in the absence of any treatment or ‘cure’, what really helped us though the last epidemic were national and local organisations that enabled us to counter misinformation from sensational media coverage with accurate and honest information, even when it was uncomfortable for ministers. We worked to form local organisations across the country that soon became the backbone of a self-help support system, helping people with everything from claiming benefits to understanding the importance ‘What really helped us though the last epidemic were national and local organisations that enabled us to counter misinformation from sensational media coverage with accurate and honest information, even when it was uncomfortable for ministers.’ In 1987, the UK government’s AIDS leaflet DON’T DIE OF IGNORANCE was sent to every household in the country: ‘By the time you read this, probably 300 people will have died in this country. It is believed that a further 30,000 carry the virus. This number is rising and will continue to rise unless we all take precautions...’ of taking the new triple therapies exactly as prescribed. We set up buddy groups where people had a named individual to work with to shop, clean, nurse and solve problems as they arose. We worked with government and unions and soon became the national organisation for people with AIDS, the Terrence Higgins Trust. But what was very different then were the arguments for testing. In 1985 we could only tell if someone had been exposed to the virus – the antibodies produced in the body in response to HIV showed infection but had no protective value, and if you needed life insurance for any reason you couldn’t get it if you tested positive. COVID-19 antibodies, on the other hand, appear to have protective value and show the person is no longer carrying the virus. So antibodies may be used, very soon, both therapeutically to boost the immune response in others and to demonstrate that someone is no longer contagious. This will enable volunteer groups to form and safely provide services better suited to local provision. In 1985 we didn’t need to worry about day-to-day contact with those infected – now things are different and people will need to know they are not contagious before helping others. When this is all over, as one day it will be, our true challenge will be to resist the pressures to return the old normalities, and instead craft a truly sustainable and equitable future for all. One day we will tell our children about these dark days, and hopefully, seeing the cleanliness of the air, the lack of smog, the clarity returning to our lakes and rivers, they will insist on a world that’s different to the one we all knew was unsustainable and leading to catastrophe. Bill Nelles is an advocate and activist, now in Canada. He founded The (Methadone) Alliance in the UK MAY 2020 • DRINK AND DRUGS NEWS • 11