Living with HIV in Wales 40 years after the AIDS pandemic

Forty years ago a different virus was moving across the world - AIDS. While coronavirus is something widely reported and discussed across our communities, AIDS was looked upon with fear and shame and is often still seen as a taboo subject. To coincide with World AIDS Day on Wednesday, ITV Cymru Wales has spoken to two men living with HIV in Wales about their experience of the virus and how the stigma surrounding it still exists.

Life during the height of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s is a vivid memory for Steve Craftman. The 64-year-old lived in London at the time and used to volunteer for the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard.

When he turned 30 in 1987, Steve decided to get a HIV test, after a man he had been in a brief relationship with died of pneumocystis pneumonia, an illness often caused by HIV/AIDS. Three weeks later it was confirmed he had tested positive for HIV.

During that time, he says he remembers many people becoming fatally ill, many of whom were friends.

As well as friends he has lost to the virus, Steve has also had two longterm partners who died because of HIV - Stuart died in 1992 of aspergillosis pneumonia and John, who he was with for 14 years, died in March 2007.

Steve believes that if the same effort had been thrown at AIDS like it has towards the coronavirus pandemic, things would have been very different for people like him and so many others.

“We were let down incredibly because initially in the 80s AIDS was something that happened to gay men and to drug users, 'the scum of society' according to society and the media let us know we were scum.

"I don’t ever recall seeing as much hate as I did in the 80s and early 90s. To have the resources given to coronavirus, to have a fraction of that would have been incredible."  

That is why Steve thinks getting the message out about HIV is so important, especially on World AIDS Day and in helping to getting rid of the stigma.

Steve says his HIV is now under control, but the treatment drugs he took in the early years following his diagnosis have left him with multiple health problems, as medics did not know what the side effects were. He's been living with HIV for 30 years.

When Marlon Van Der Mark tested positive for HIV four years ago, he wasn't really aware of the virus or AIDS, but he soon came to know of the stigma his diagnosis brought with it.

“It was a big shock, everything changed, I didn’t want leave the house, I didn’t want to meet anyone anymore, I didn’t know what to think let alone what anyone else would think of me, it was just horrific.

"But I’ve now gained the strength to finally accept it and know that I’m not alone and there’s so much work to be done to stop the stigma as well.

Marlon is working on ways to remove the stigma that surrounds HIV.

“I watched It’s a Sin, it taught me a lot, I didn’t realise it was that bad, until you educate yourself from it and that’s one big thing that it taught me is that you need to educate yourself.

"It’s still difficult, it’s not easy, everyday is different but I am accepting it and I am doing better now and I’m now raising awareness on social media, mostly through TikTok. I’m just doing everything I can really to change people’s minds and make them more accepting.” 

One way he is doing that is by working on a project to encourage more people to get tested and he's featuring in a mural on the corner of James Street and Adelaide Street in Cardiff by the street artist Bradley Rmer.

The mural shows Marlon alongside Mercy Shibemba who also has HIV and includes a QR code for people to scan so they can find out how and where they can get tested.

“I was really happy when I got asked to be a part of it, it was a big thing.

"I’m on social media and I’m just doing it out of my home, then to be able to have something like that done, it’s amazing, everyone can see it and it’s just great that more people are paying attention and hopefully it gets some word out."

You can see more of this story on tonight's Sharp End at 11pm on ITV Cymru Wales

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