Thirty years ago it was the highest-profile illness in the world. HIV/Aids had only been discovered in humans a few years earlier and created a panic. Hard-hitting awareness campaigns featured posters that portrayed deathly-frail “victims” and tombstones etched with “Aids”, while leaflets warning of the “dreadful disease” were distributed to homes across the country. Scare stories about how you could catch it from a toilet seat or sharing a cup with someone – both untrue – soon followed. The campaigns served their purpose. For a period until the late 1980s, diagnosis rates dropped. But they are slowly rising again.

Now Southampton health chiefs have launched a campaign to tackle stigma around HIV through early testing. Solent NHS Trust is running extra clinics across the city from Monday to December 3as part of a national programme to catch the virus early enough to begin effective treatment. And the free clinics will be offered in community venues to help remove the stigma around testing and provide a more comfortable setting. It is thought that two in every 1,000 people in Southampton have HIV – the highest rate in Hampshire. And studies also suggest that one in five people with HIV do not know they have it.

Andrew Smith, Solent HIV prevention lead, said: “We know that people who are diagnosed late with HIV have increased rates of mortality within the first year of diagnosis. Getting tested for HIV is the best way of supporting your health.”  The finger-prick test involves drawing blood and combining it with separate solutions which can identify HIV antibodies within 60 seconds. If HIV is found, patients are immediately fast-tracked into the city’s sexual health service and given another test to confirm the illness within 48 hours.

The national campaign is targeting certain groups, including gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, and African people, as these groups have been most affected by the virus historically. HIV and Aids were first clinically observed in both the USA and UK in 1981, although HIV only received its name in 1986. By 1985 the Government was spending millions of pounds to fight Aids and in 1986 the “Don’t Aid Aids” campaign was launched, followed by “Don’t Die of Ignorance” in 1987, when leaflets were delivered to every home in the country. World Aids Day was created in 1988, with this year’s event coming up on December 1.

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