The government is failing London's LGBTQ+ people. But now they're fighting back

Louis Staples
Thursday 05 December 2019 16:45

Sexual health services have been hit by cuts to local authorities over the last few years.

In 2017, it was reported that 56 Dean Street – Europe’s largest sexual health clinic – was being forced to cut appointments from 350 to just 75 per day.

But now the pioneering Soho clinic – which has been at the forefront of the fight against HIV and is at the heart of London’s LGBTQ+ community – is taking matters into its own hands.

With the UK government dragging its heels on providing PrEP – a medication which prevents the spread of HIV – on the English NHS, the clinic has launched a fundraiser so it can offer free PrEP to those who can't afford it.

NHS England has so far provided 26,000 spaces on its PrEP Impact Trial, but these disappear almost immediately. The drug is already available in Wales and Scotland on the NHS, but last month the BBC reported that 15 men had contracted HIV while waiting for a space on the trial. When PrEP is taken properly it's almost 100 per cent effective in preventing the person from contracting HIV, even if they have unprotected sex with someone who isn't receiving treatment.

The majority of people taking PrEP are men who have sex with men, but other groups such as sex workers and people of colour – who experience disproportionately high rates of HIV contraction – would benefit from the drug being made more widely available.

Currently, those who wish to take the drug have to self-source from abroad at a personal cost, or wait until trial spaces become available.

With its new fundraiser, Dean Street is hoping to relieve this responsibility from young gay men, a group which is seeing a worrying rise in new HIV transmissions.

Incredibly, London’s LGBTQ+ community and their allies have rallied around the fundraiser, donating over £30,000 in just a few days.

Dr Alan McOwan, 56 Dean Street’s lead clinician, told indy100 that the fundraiser will change the lives of vulnerable younger gay men.

Although Dean Street has seen an 80 per cent drop in HIV diagnoses overall, there’s been no fall in under 25-year-olds. London is an expensive place to live and many young gay men tell us they simply can’t afford to buy PrEP.

We created Generation ZERO [a campaign run by 56 Dean Street] because we’re determined to prevent another generation of gay men from being affected by Aids.

 There’s still a huge unmet need. The youngest members of our community need our support. A donation of £12 will protect a young gay man from HIV for one month.

PrEP activist Greg Owen is the co-founder of iwantPrEPnow, a website which facilitates the safe purchase of genuine generic PrEP and provides information on PrEP. He is highly critical of cuts to sexual health services and delayed roll-out of PrEP.

While it’s heart-warming that our community has rallied behind this initiative from 56 Dean Street, the individuals and organisations responsible for commissioning PrEP in England should be utterly ashamed and disgraced that our community is having to donate money to a clinic fundraiser in order to provide PrEP to under-25s to protect them from acquiring HIV.

This generation of young gay and bi men have the opportunity to live free from HIV. The handling of PrEP over these past three years has been shambolic and we know some gay and bisexual men have needlessly acquired HIV whilst on waiting lists for the trial, we cannot let this continue. Years of cuts to sexual health services, coupled with delay after delay with PrEP access, are just some the reasons we are in this position. 

Ahead of the general election, PrEP has been a leading topic of discussion within the LGBTQ+ community. The Tory manifesto contains no references to PrEP, while Labour has pledged to make the drug available on the NHS if they're elected.

The National Aids Trust, a charity dedicated to transforming society's response to HIV, has put PrEP at the centre of its own #SexualHealthManifesto.

Natasha Dhumma, Head of Policy and Campaigns, said:

It’s so important that everyone who can benefit from PrEP is able to access it and Dean Street’s initiative to remove barriers for young people, just of the one groups we see coming up against them, is to be commended. These barriers compound health inequalities and hamper the fight against HIV.

That Plan ZERO should need to exist in the first place exposes the indefensible shortcomings of current provision of PrEP through the NHS Impact Trial, where clinics in London are closing their doors to the communities they serve. Vital HIV prevention cannot be left up to charity. The government must step up to its responsibilities and get routine commissioning of PrEP in place as a matter of urgency.

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