Britain's hidden Aids victims

Despite an improving global picture, in parts of this country we are losing the fight against HIV.

Ernest Nkrumah opens the door of his tiny flat with a blue tooth chip clipped to his chin, and a loud African shirt. His home is rammed with desks, computers and trailing wires. Posters of HIV and Aids line the walls alongside pictures of Barak Obama, Michael Jackson and Ghanaian flags. Nkrumah's humble home on the top floor of a Peckham estate is also his Foundation. His mouthpiece lets him take calls from patients at anytime.

I went to see Nkrumah today for World Aids Day. I came armed with positive facts. The latest UN report paints an optimistic picture, with new HIV infections at their lowest levels since 1997 across the globe. Meanwhile, the number of people dying from Aids related causes fell from 2.2 million in the mid-2000s to 1.8 million in 2010. It remains terrifyingly prevalent, but the tide is finally turning. We are all learning to address it.

So when Nkrumah started telling me about the devastating discrimination happening on my doorstep, I was shocked.

He spoke about a community where family, friends and faith leaders do not recognise the condition as anything other than a curse. A significant group, who still see HIV as a "dirty illness for dirty people"; a just punishment for inappropriate behaviour. NHS staff are still being refused entry to my local churches to offer tests, and banned from mentioning the disease in front of religious buildings. South London radio stations continue to pump out disrespect for sufferers in different languages, and free contraception is not taken up.

"People are living underground, they do not want to come forward," says Nkrumah, "It's like living below the radar."

These stories are backed up by the numbers. According to the National Aids Trust, some 12 per cent of all HIV sufferers in the country now live in Southwark, Lewisham and Lambeth -- a tiny corner of South East London. The prevalence of diagnosed HIV in my borough more than doubled between 1996 and 2003, and over 11 people in 1,000 now have it. While the world and the country is making progress, the fight against HIV in parts of our country remains dark, hidden and is getting worse.

These problems persist beneath sterile NHS clinics and rosy-cheeked health workers. Nkrumah told me about finding patients who have haven't been out for years, people whose self esteem has dropped so low they won't even bother taking medication. His self-help groups have to meet in anonymous locations and pretend not to know each other on the street.

Another Aids worker told me about students with the condition being segregated in class. One patient saw a friend delete their number from their mobile in front of their face when they found out. In such a hostile environment, Nkrumah's flat is the only place patients from some communities trust to find understanding.

Although some 50 per cent of the country's HIV patients are now found in London -- largely associated with the relatively high numbers of gay and African men -- other areas suffer pockets of disproportionate prevalence, too. Manchester, Salford, Leicester and Blackpool are some of the urban areas where prevalence persists above the national average.

Any sense that we are disconnected from this problem is an illusion. Most of us won't see or hear about these cases, but they are playing out on our streets. Stigma in any community means people are less likely to be tested, less likely to be treated and more likely to spread the condition. We pick up increased infections and NHS bills. We lose talent from early deaths.

So when news came through today that there are massive cuts to international Aids funding, we will be the ones who suffer. Over a quarter of my ward are black African or Caribbean, and those that were not born abroad still go back to visit. We cannot afford to be insular on this.

If you're worried that global Aids charities seem too distant and unaccountable, think about visiting Nkrumah and his flat. Read the "thank you" text messages he holds up proudly from patients, and listen to him constantly giving advice through a headset that he rarely switches off. Right now he's struggling to compete with bigger charities for smaller funding pots. If you want to help or need it yourself, think about giving him a call.

Click here to visit The Ernest Foundation website

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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