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Charity boss calls for more action to end HIV stigma as he is made OBE

Richard Angell (THT/PA)
Richard Angell (THT/PA)

A leading HIV campaigner has called for an end to the stigma surrounding the virus as he was recognised for his charitable efforts in the King’s Birthday Honours.

Richard Angell, chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust, has been made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).

He said that more needs to be done to bring down the “institutional discrimination” towards the virus – such as a ban which prohibits people with the virus from becoming boxers.

The 40-year-old from Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, said that there were “night and day” differences in HIV prevention, support and care today compared with when the charity was established.

But he said that stigma surrounding the virus has not been tackled quickly enough.

The charity was set up in memory of Terry Higgins – one of the first people in the UK to die of an Aids-related illness in 1982.

Mr Angell told the PA news agency: “When Terry Higgins died, the virus didn’t even have a name, let alone a test, any care or support in place.

“So over the period since: the virus was identified, an antibody test was developed – which has gone from taking weeks in a lab to taking 15 minutes with a finger prick test; we have got the most amazing treatment that keeps people alive and stops the virus attacking their immune system and crucially means when they take a daily pill they cannot pass on HIV to their sexual partners; or if they are having a baby, women now can breastfeed if they’re living with HIV in a whole host of circumstances; and we are combating stigma, although not quick enough.

“That’s the bit that ultimately hasn’t changed, that particularly at the point of people getting their diagnosis – they are taken back to the tombstone adverts of the 1980s, which did a remarkable job of saving lives at the time, but have crystallised HIV in the mind of so many.

“And government has not done sufficient work in the meantime to change that dial.”

On how to combat stigma, he said: “Firstly, sharing the news that if people living with HIV take their medication, they simply can’t pass on the virus.

“Secondly, for the public to know that if you’re on your medication, you can have a normal life expectancy, and that HIV doesn’t need to cap your life or your ambition in any way, shape or form.

“And finally, to be more accepting and to treat HIV as a normal virus, not some kind of scary virus. Too often we see people say: ‘How did you get it?’

“While we’re changing hearts and minds in the public, we need to be tearing down the institutional discrimination that exists in our society.

“For example, you still are not able to be a boxer without having a HIV negative test – if you can play rugby, you can fight for your country, I don’t understand why you can’t box – that is an unnecessary barrier that exists in the system.”

On being made an OBE, Mr Angell said: “I was genuinely surprised to receive the letter.

“It comes at a challenging time for the charity and many in the sector are underappreciated so in many ways I see this on behalf of those who are working incredibly hard, not just in HIV prevention, support and care, but in the third sector at a time in which austerity and inflation are cruel masters and really impacting the vital work that we are doing.”

Mr Angell has worked in charity leadership roles for 22 years and joined the THT in 2020.

During his time at the sexual health charity he has helped establish opt-out testing for HIV in emergency departments, worked on a successful campaign to overturn rules on blood donations for gay and bisexual men and took part in joint efforts to establish the first ever HIV Action Plan – which sets out how England can stop new HIV transmissions by 2030.