It felt like a big task: communicate the reality of the HIV epidemic occurring in six cities around the world while at the same time raising enough money to help combat that epidemic and help those who need it most.
But that was the challenge we had set ourselves back in November 2018 when the Elton John AIDS Foundation joined forces with The Independent and the Evening Standard to launch the AIDSFree Christmas campaign.
That year, while travelling each evening on the London Underground, I watched people reading stories on their commute home about what it was like to live with HIV in Kiev, Nairobi, Delhi, Maputo, Atlanta and London.
I could imagine the questions they would be asking themselves: wasn’t Aids a 1980s problem? How could it still be so bad, especially in the United States? Did the medicines really stop you being infectious? Did the drugs to protect you from being infected actually work?
I knew as head of the Elton John AIDS Foundation that such responses were common. HIV is an infectious disease that people knew about but, in a city like London at least, rarely witnessed. It is why I was nervous about how our campaign would be received by the public.
I need not have worried. Over the next few weeks, the readers of The Independent and the Evening Standard helped us raise more than £3.26m that Christmas. The government stepped up too, with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for International Development both coming on board to offer help.
The result of what happened over those few weeks of the campaign has been extraordinary. Its impact has been life changing for more than 120,000 people in the six cities that the campaign had pledged to support.
In Maputo, where one in every six young women is living with HIV, an army of 18- to 24-year-olds are now educating their peers about safe sex.
In Nairobi, the campaign means we are now subsidising the sale of thousands of HIV self-test kits. One swab around your mouth and those who have one of these kits get the result in 20 minutes.
Both of these projects also work to link people to emotional support and, if they need it, medical care, as well as providing information to help those who are HIV-negative to stay that way. “Know your status” is the mantra we are seeking to encourage.
Meanwhile in Kiev we have funded the Alliance for Public Health to run a programme that prioritises young people vulnerable to HIV through drug use. This connects them directly through online platforms to provide confidential information on the risks of HIV infection and harm through drug use.
Self-test kits are also being distributed in rural locations and at music festivals and nightclubs.
In Delhi the LGBT+ community is at very high risk of physical and sexual abuse, often leading to HIV infection. That is why we are backing the provision of online services to safely and effectively connect with people, and then support them to access HIV screening and treatments.
And in Atlanta, where a gay black man has a 60 per cent lifetime chance of contracting HIV, we have entered a formal partnership with the Fulton County Commission that oversees health services to the greater Atlanta area.
Together, we are now working to ensure vulnerable gay and bisexual black Americans get the help they need, not least by training advocacy “Fellows” to speak up for the city’s black community and challenge the structural racism that makes it so vulnerable to HIV, as it has also been to Covid.
At the end of our AIDSFree campaign, secretary of state Matt Hancock made a pledge at our special AIDSFree summit, staged here in the capital, to end HIV in England by 2030.
Inspired by that goal, an independent national HIV Commission was born that has spent the past 15 months reviewing data, hearing evidence, travelling the country and offering anyone connected to HIV/Aids the opportunity to have their say about how to meet Mr Hancock’s target.
The commission’s report, which launches on Tuesday, delivers a 20-point to-do list that uses everything we know and all we have learnt about fighting HIV to provide practical and achievable solutions to deliver on the pledge that Mr Hancock set at our event two years ago.
At such a time as this, when we are all caught amid the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, is this really a priority now? I would argue yes. As we know from Covid, infectious diseases don’t go away until you wipe them out. They just wait to rebound. The headline recommendation from the commission report, much like the national action plan for Covid, is test, test, test.
Over the past 18 months, the Elton John AIDS Foundation has been doing just this in south London as it works with hospitals, GPs and voluntary organisations across Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham, coordinated by Lambeth’s local authority, to test patients for HIV whenever blood is drawn.
As a result, we have found people living with HIV who had never thought themselves at risk, let alone that they might transmit HIV to others. Our calculations show that just the 256 people living with HIV that this project has brought into care will save the NHS up to £55m in the longer term.
Each World Aids Day we remember the 33 million people who have died so far in the Aids epidemic. As a result of our AIDSFree campaign and the work of the commission that it helped inspire, we now have a greater possibility for a future here in England that lies beyond the HIV epidemic.
I can think of perhaps no better way to honour those we have lost by now doing all we can to promote the know-how and tools that will help us finish the fight. I would like to thank every reader of this newspaper who by supporting our AIDSFree campaign back in 2018 contributed to making that possibility come closer to becoming a reality.
Anne Aslett is the CEO of the Elton John AIDS Foundation