Sugar’s reaction to EastEnders shows extent of public HIV stigma

Lord Alan Sugar has been ruffling feathers outside the boardroom this week, reacting to a new EastEnders storyline, where one of the characters, Zack, has been diagnosed with HIV after sharing needles with another character.

He said that Whitney, pregnant with Zack’s child and possibly also living with HIV, should terminate the pregnancy if she receives a positive diagnosis. 

Whilst Chiva, the charity for children and young adults who have grown up living with HIV, welcomes this issue being covered on such a far-reaching channel, reactions like Sugar’s show just how much public ideas about HIV need an update. 

Vertical transmission, where the virus is passed from parent to child, is now extremely uncommon. All those who are pregnant are offered an HIV test as part of antenatal screenings – and 99.8% take up this offer. Just 0.11 per 1,000 of those tested in 2020/2021 received a new HIV diagnosis, according to data from ISOSS. 

As a result of these screenings, 99.2% of those living with HIV in this same period were on antiretroviral treatment (ART: a combination of drugs used to treat HIV) during their pregnancies. This lowers their viral load, making it very unlikely they would pass the virus on to their child through vertical transmission.

There were only three known vertical transmissions in the 2018 and 2019 calendar years in England. That’s 0.25% of all pregnancies of those who were living with HIV (1,205 in total). In 2000, this used to be as high as 3%.

So, even if Whitney is also living with HIV, it’s very unlikely she’ll pass the virus on to her baby. 

Beyond Sugar’s tweet, the character Zack himself shows evidence of HIV misinformation, sharing common myths, such as not thinking he should be tested because he’s “the fittest he’s ever been.” Or saying “you come to say goodbye, or what?” when he finds out about Brett’s HIV status. Although you may feel perfectly healthy, HIV can remain asymptomatic for months or years, and when diagnosed, HIV is not the terminal condition it used to be. 

“The situation for those living with HIV is altogether different now, worlds away from the bleak reality faced by characters in It’s a Sin, for example,” says Chiva CEO Amanda Ely

“From no known HIV treatment, antiretroviral therapy has changed everything. Widespread testing and opt-out antenatal screenings have also made an unprecedented difference. Not only is it now harder to pass on HIV, to a partner or a child, but a HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Those with HIV live long, full and healthy lives.”

“Unfortunately, most people still don’t seem to have got the message. Public knowledge on HIV still seems decades old and HIV stigma is rife. 

“Many of the challenges faced by the young people we work with are less to do with the medical aspects of living with HIV, but the social impacts. For example, it can be really difficult to talk openly about HIV and tell friends or partners, causing a great deal of anxiety. 

“Wider misunderstandings and myths around HIV lead to stigma and discrimination. This is the biggest burden of a modern HIV diagnosis, leading to mental health difficulties and impacts on quality of life more broadly.”

“Plotlines like Zack’s and other recent cultural HIV spotlights, go a long way in helping break down this stigma and therefore significantly improving the lives of those living with HIV.”

About Chiva:
Chiva is a charity working to enhance the health and psychological wellbeing of children and young people living with HIV in the UK and Ireland. Chiva | Home

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Contact: Amanda Ely, Chiva CEO, 07484830329