Carl Froch has joined Premiership footballers and London 2012 athletes to appear in an HIV awareness campaign launching this month in East London.
The Saving Lives Avengers will feature in posters and leaflets across The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel to promote an innovative offering of routine HIV testing to all patients having blood tests taken in the emergency department. The campaign is a collaboration between Barts Health NHS Trust and Saving Lives, a national HIV awareness charity which enjoys the support of many sporting stars.
The Saving Lives Avengers aim to educate patients and raise awareness about the importance of HIV testing and IBF super middleweight champion Froch thinks the role is an important one: "If people like me who are in the public eye can attract attention to a topic which people might otherwise ignore, that can only be a good thing," he says.
Among the Saving Lives Ambassadors is London-born England and Aston Villa striker, Darren Bent. "You hear a lot of silly claims about taking a test damaging your chances of getting insurance or a mortgage, but it's not true. Saving Lives is raising awareness about HIV, how we can control it, and how people can live a long and happy life."
Nationwide, one in four of those with HIV are unaware they are infected, and the area served by The Royal London has an estimated HIV population five times higher than the national average (6 in every 1000 people). The new effort is designed to diagnose the undiagnosed.
"HIV can be symptomless for a long time," explains Dr Chloe Orkin, the Barts Health HIV Consultant behind the routine testing plan. "That means it's very easy for people not to be diagnosed until it's too late for today's life-saving treatments to have their best effect. People are still dying of HIV in the UK - but only because they test too late."
The offer of routine testing is unusual, and aims to show that in high-prevalence areas wider HIV testing can have an impact on the numbers of people living with undiagnosed HIV. Currently, patients and their doctors must specifically request a test.
"There's still a lot of stigma around HIV," explains Dr Steve Taylor, HIV Specialist at Birmingham Heartlands Hospital and Medical Director of Saving Lives. "One of the things our campaigns and sporting advocates help do is correct some commonly-held out-dated myths that perpetuate this stigma which make the lives of people living with HIV very difficult.
Getting tested, looking after your sexual health, education and prevention are what it’s all about. If people have taken risks and by that I simply mean having unprotected sex; then there is every reason to get tested it could save your life.”
London 2012 medal-winning hockey player Sally Walton adds: "Without the test, you run the risk of passing on HIV to your nearest and dearest, and even to potential children through pregnancy. Today's treatments can help you live a long, healthy life - so there's no reason not to get a test done."
A similar campaign conducted at the end of 2012 in Birmingham was cited by 16% of 1800 clinic attendees as part of the reason for taking the test - half of those respondents had no other exposure to sexual health messages in the previous 3 months.
Dan Hartland, Director of Operations for Saving Lives said “We would like to make our Saving Lives Avengers resources available to every City council and Hospital in the country. In this way the hugely expensive costs of such a multimedia campaign featuring stars such as these could be shared and lessened at a time when NHS budgets are very tight, but there is still an urgent need for a new HIV awareness campaign.”
The pilot campaign runs throughout the month of April at The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel.