Hackney doctor keeping HIV in public eye
The discovery of AIDS in 1981 sparked widespread panic and a global media frenzy. But 30 years on, Hackney doctor Professor Jane Anderson knows that keeping the disease in the public eye is increasingly difficult.
The director of Homerton Hospital’s centre for the study of sexual health and HIV – and wife of TV wit Clive – has seen at first hand how the disease has developed over the years.
“I qualified as a doctor just at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic,” she said.
“We didn’t know about HIV. We just knew about the men who were dying.
“When I first started, we were giving people huge quantities of drugs to take home – like shoe boxes full of the most revolting potions.
“If you told me then that we would have one pill to be taken once a day in the course of my career – not even my lifetime – I would have said absolutely not.”
Jane, the incoming chair of the British HIV Association, trained as a nutritionist before making it to medical school.
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“I always wanted to be a doctor but I didn’t do terribly well in my A levels,” she said.
She began working at the Homerton in 1990 after setting up the HIV unit at Barts hospital in the City of London. The Homerton had 35 HIV positive patients back then. Now its staff care for 820.
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) attacks the body’s immune system, increasing the risk of infection or disease. It is most commonly passed between sexual partners, mothers and their babies, or drug users sharing needles. If left untreated, most suffers will develop AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), which is the late stage of HIV when the immune system has stopped working.
Survival rates have hugely improved with the development of antiretroviral drugs in the late 1990s, which succeeded in transforming the disease from a death sentence into a chronic but apparently stable condition.
Hackney and the City had 1,265 people living with HIV in 2009, according to Primary Care Trust stastics.
Patients aged 35 can expect a further 35 years of normal life, and the team at the Homerton can now make sure women with HIV can have HIV-negative babies.
But despite the medical advances, one barrier still remains.
“There’s a frustration with the stigma and the fact that people are still reluctant to get tested,” said Jane.
“It is one of those things –you know that you have got the solution in your hands but people are too afraid to come and take it.
“To have come this far and to still find people won’t talk about it – this is where medicine meets reality.”
The number of people living with HIV nationally reached an estimated 86,500 in 2009. But more than a quarter – almost 22,500 – were still unaware of their infection, according to the Health Protection Agency. In Hackney and the City, 26 per cent of all HIV diagnoses were at developed stages of the disease.
Most deaths from AIDS in the UK are still caused by patients seeking help too late.
“This is something that has to be talked about. It is so important. But many people have forgotten, and for young people it has always been there.”
However for many of the high-profile guests at a charity dinner in aid of the Homerton last week, the disease was a lot closer to home. Family and friends gathered at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill on Tuesday, March 1, in celebration of the life of London bohemian Henry Tennant, who died of Aids in 1990 at the age of 29.
They raised �52,000 for Positive Lives, a new specialist facility to care for people with HIV at the Homerton.
“I never met Henry Tennant but I have heard quite a lot about him. I hope we did him proud,” said Jane.
“We are absolutely thrilled with the contribution.”
It is not just money that events like this one provide. Jane is more than aware of the benefits publicity can bring.
“It is important in today’s environment – where if something is on X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent it is noticed,” she said.
Among the Homerton’s celebrity supporters is actor and comedian Stephen Fry, who filmed part of an AIDS documentary at the hospital. And Jane’s husband, the former barrister and television presenter Clive Anderson, is not afraid to take the stand.
The couple met in 1979 and will be celebrating their 30th anniversary this year.
“He is incredibly supportive. He has always been up for helping,” said Jane.
“I’m always coming along with another request and he always says yes.”
Over the past 18 months, Positive Lives has been a top priority. The new centre aims to not only provide much needed space for the Homerton’s growing HIV services, but a place for patients to get care, support and advice.
“We want it to be a beautiful place and a place of calm,” said Jane.
“A woman living with a complicated stigmatising condition is not always going to find it easy to travel across London. She needs to come to one place where she can find all the help in one place.
Many of the facility’s visitors are indeed female. Although just 35 per cent of people living with HIV in the UK are women or girls, 65 per cent of Jane’s patients at the Homerton are female.
“Locally we have a very large heterosexual epidemic of HIV, even though the majority of people with HIV in the UK are men who have sex with men.
“In this part of London we have an incredibly diverse population and many people we see are from parts of the world where there is a huge amount of HIV. We see a lot of people who are in relationships and have had really complicated lives.
“Women are more likely to contact us and we know women in general are more vulnerable to HIV infection than men.”
The antenatal facilities at the Homerton offer up new diagnoses every year, and the scan room – where a father comes to see his unborn child for the first time – is another chance to encourage testing.”
“The message is that families need strong fathers and the way is to stay strong is to stay well.”
Jane hopes the Positive Lives centre will open by 2012, when the hospital will treat Olympic athletes.
“It would be fantastic if we could be open by 2012. HIV is a global issue and the Olympics is the sporting event for the world,” she said.
But the project is still about �500,000 short of its target – and with NHS reform and budget cuts looming, the centre needs all the support it can get.
To donate or get involved in the Homerton Hope campaign, go to www.homertonhope.org or call 020 8510 5035 or 020 8510 5154.