“I’ve got my life back”

HIV sufferer praises “life-changing” support group in Birmingham.

An HIV sufferer who had “nothing to get up for” has praised the “life-changing” impact of a Birmingham support group which has helped him get his life back – as figures show the number of people with the condition in the city has increased by more than 30 per cent in the last five years.

Known only as Andy, he was diagnosed with human immunodeficiency virus four years ago and attends Positive West Midlands, a group partially funded by Ageing Better in Birmingham. The 51-year-old is married with two children and contracted the disease through sexual encounters with men.

Speaking on World Aids Day (December 1st), he said: “Since joining the group, I now have something to get up for. It takes away the isolation. The group has opened doors for me and boosted my confidence. I found no support in my local area. Every minute of the 16 miles I travel to the group is worth it. The difference with me is that I’m married. The group helps to keep us together. My wife also needs support, she wanted to ask people what to expect. She has stood by me.”

HIV remains a public health concern despite major advances in treatment, awareness and reductions in diagnosis. In 2016 an estimated 1,968 people in Birmingham were thought to have the condition, compared with just 1,500 in 2011. Prevelance rates across the West Midlands region have also increased from 4,438 in 2011, to 6,012 in 2016, according to figures provided by Public Health England.

Ageing Better in Birmingham, which aims to drive down loneliness and isolation in people over 50, has now been officially launched across the city following a successful pilot scheme launched in 2015.

The project is funded by a £6 million, six-year grant supported by the Big Lottery Fund using National Lottery funding – allowing support groups such as Positive West Midlands to thrive.

Andy added: “When I was diagnosed I sunk into depression and became a recluse. It was a big shock, my funeral was booked. I spent my time on Google trying to find out what was going to happen to me. Being part of the group has taught me that I am not alone. It’s been life-changing for me. I attend twice a week and really look forward to it. I now take a bit of extra care about myself. Before I had nothing to get up for but now, I have my life back.”

More than 100,000 people are living with HIV in the UK. Globally, there are an estimated 36.7 million people who have the virus. Despite the virus only being identified in 1984, more than 35 million people have died of HIV or AIDS, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history.

Despite this, each year in the UK around 6,000 people are diagnosed with HIV, people do not know the facts about how to protect themselves and others, and stigma and discrimination remain a reality for many people living with the condition.

The group comes under one of four priority areas in the city identified by Ageing Better in Birmingham in need of most help:
Isolated carers
Older Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender community
Tyburn, which has a high population of people over 80
Sparkbrook, where mobile communities face particular challenges

Alan Wilson, 51, Chairman of Positive West Midlands, said: “Nowadays HIV can be kept under control longer, however taking medications can lead to complications with blood pressure and bone density and there is still a stigma, even in gay communities. As a group we are trying to build-up people’s self-esteem and provide a place to meet in a safe environment and the opportunity to talk to other people in the same situation.”

The group, which has members aged from 22 to 83, meet on Mondays and Fridays at secure premises in Corporation Street.

Maria Hughes, a Network Enabler for Birmingham LGBT, a charity funded organisation that works to improve the lives of people in the LGBT community, said: “When the local voluntary sector support group for people living with HIV had to close, a number of the attendees took it upon themselves to create their own group and continue to offer the support and friendship they’d built up, and reach out to others who are isolated because of their HIV status. I am delighted to be able to offer practical and financial support as this is just the kind of community-led action that Ageing Better is here to encourage.”

So far 2,723 people have benefited from the Ageing Better in Birmingham scheme, which has developed existing community events, clubs and activities and refocused them on encouraging people to get together to reduce isolation.

People of all ages are being encouraged to apply for up to £2,000 through the Ageing Better Fund to start activities, initiatives and events for the collective benefit of isolated older people across the city. For information about programmes taking place near you email: ageingbetter@bvsc.org or call 0121 678 8876.