“One of the first to understand the nature of the threat from HIV/AIDS, he has never stopped campaigning”, was how The Guardian described the Right Hon. the Lord Fowler a couple of years ago.
His seminar at LSTM, AIDS: don’t die of prejudice for staff and students showed what an important difference an individual can make to the public health of a country. As Mrs Thatcher’s health secretary, he was responsible for the UK’s HIV/AIDS public awareness campaign in 1987. “We knew we had to do something-HIV was a death sentence then” he explained, and this led to the famous “Tombstones” campaign on the TV with a leaflet to every household in the UK warning of the dangers.
Lord Fowler has spent a life-time in party politics: as a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, Chairman of the Conservative Party under John Major, and then a member of the shadow cabinet under William Hague, but that the issue of HIV/AIDS was one that crossed the political divide. As Secretary for Health and Social Security in 1986 the disease was exploding, hospital wards were full of young men dying. This is how the original HIV campaign, Don’t die of ignorance, came about-the scariest advert many have seen-but it got people talking about sex and how to avoid infection. There was extraordinary-and predictable criticism from within his own cabinet as well as from religious leaders who felt that the campaign would encourage “immoral behaviour” and increase the problem; when he led the programme to introduce clean needles campaign for drug users, it was controversial- providing clean needles could be perceived as condoning criminal activity. Yet the objections have never shown to have had foundation, and the leadership shown probably helped prevent an epidemic in the UK.
Lord Fowler described the importance of all governments, and particularly their treasuries, looking at prevention as a viable cost saving exercise, that even though now a diagnosis of HIV need not be as bleak given the success of antiretroviral therapies, that HIV continues to cost the NHS over £1 billion a year. Lord Fowler described the debilitating role that prejudice, particularly at government level in some countries, plays in the fact that around half of an estimated 35 million people infected with HIV in the world are unaware of their condition and government prejudice and fear are barriers to successful prevention.
Combined with an over optimistic attitude to the problem, which is still a public health issue affecting millions, Lord Fowler concluded that prevention and prejudice still remain challenges 30 years on. HIV/AIDS needs to be seen as not just a medical problem, there needs to be policies that advocate for proper funding for prevention, because successful prevention benefits all.
A recording of the Seminar can be found here: