Seven reasons to be proud of the UK’s global response to HIV – and one word of warning


Kate Harrison


As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of World AIDS Day it’s time to be reflective. What role has the UK played in the response to HIV, and what are the lessons for philanthropy?

The UK engaged with the epidemic early
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was discovered in 1983, and soon after that in 1985, the UK Department of Health funded harm reduction services for injecting drug users. Avert’s HIV timeline reminds us of the history of the response – including the iconic moment in April 1987 when Princess Diana challenged stigma by shaking hands with an unnamed man with HIV. That was the same year as the UK’s infamous ‘Don’t die of ignorance’ campaign.

Private philanthropy fills gaps in government funding
There are times when governments cannot, or will not, fund essential elements of the HIV response. Back in 1987, the Medical Research Council refused to fund research into HIV among women. A small private funder, Avert, stepped into the breach and funded work on HIV in women, and the effect in pregnancy. This work was later taken up by the government, but it took private funding to show the importance of the research. Even now, certain national governments refuse to fund evidence-based interventions such as needle exchange, support for gay men or sex workers, on ideological grounds, or because of perceived public perception, and private funders continue to fill the gaps.

The UK has a vibrant civil society response on HIV
UK charities and civil society are incredibly active on HIV. Domestic charities like Terrence Higgins Trust and NAM provide vital information on HIV prevention and support to people living with HIV. Meanwhile StopAIDS, the network of UK agencies responding to HIV globally, has over seventy members and has been raising awareness, supporting and lobbying on HIV and AIDS since 1986.  It’s partly due to StopAIDS activism that we can proudly read the next point in my list:

The UK government is the second largest bilateral funder of the response to HIV
Yes, we’re number two among national governments funding the HIV response, second only to the United States and their huge President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). DFID was one of the first national funders to engage with HIV, and has funded important elements of the response, such as the Robert Carr Civil Society Network fund. Most of the UK government funding goes to multilateral agencies such as the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. However, DFID’s funding to civil society, and to other national governments, has dropped dramatically in the last few years.

The UK supports globally important research on HIV
Wellcome is among the top three private funders of HIV worldwide, funding a wide range of scientific research as well as advocacy and knowledge sharing. The UK is home to cutting edge research institutions such as the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex.

UK funders collaborate to share learning and achieve greater impact
Readers of Alliance Magazine will be very familiar with calls to private philanthropy to collaborate more, and there are some great examples of this in the UK. Examples include the $200 million public-private partnership between the UK’s Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and the US government to accelerate children’s HIV treatment; and the £2 million collaboration between Comic Relief and the MAC AIDS fund to support vulnerable and marginalised young people affected by HIV across the UK, South Africa and Zimbabwe,

Inspiring leadership in the HIV response
Finally in my list, we can’t think of the response to HIV without acknowledging the activism and support of some famous and not-so famous names, who have committed time, energy and funding to the response. The Elton John AIDS Foundation was founded in the early 1990s, and, following in his mother’s footsteps, Prince Harry established Sentebale in Lesotho 2006. Both are in the top ten HIV funders based in the UK, according to Funders Concerned about AIDS. The Scottish singer Annie Lennox is a long-time HIV activist and patron of mothers2mothers. And a British woman with HIV, Kate Thomson, has been a global leader in the response; Kate founded the International Coalition of Women with HIV/AIDS and now leads the Community, Rights and Gender Department in the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.

There’s so much to be proud of when we consider the UK’s response to HIV and AIDS, and much success to celebrate. A word of warning, however. No matter what headlines you’ve read, HIV isn’t over. In 2017, there were roughly 1.8 million new HIV infections globally – the same as in 2016. HIV prevention needs a combination of approaches, social, behavioural and biomedical. We must remain committed to HIV prevention, diagnosis care and treatment so that another 30 years from now we can look back with pride at the UK’s response to the end of AIDS.

Kate Harrison is Head of Programme Funding at Avert

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