Retired rugby star Gareth Thomas revealed to the press last week that he is HIV positive, and has been living with the illness privately for the past few years.
His sudden decision to go public with his diagnosis was triggered by the blackmail ordeal he suffered at the hands of a tabloid journalist who discovered details of Thomas’ condition earlier this year and threatened public exposure. Yet Thomas hopes that by sharing his story personally he will be able to accurately portray the life of an HIV positive individual and contribute to the ongoing battle to ‘break the stigma’ which surrounds HIV and AIDS.
Thomas had an incredibly notable career in rugby, earning 100 international caps for his country and captaining both the British Lions and Welsh teams. As an exceptionally talented athlete neither his retirement in 2011 nor his diagnosis have physically slowed him down, as he recently completed a 140 mile Iron Man race, coincidentally the day after going public with his condition. Thomas said he hoped that people would see that having HIV does not make you ‘close to death’ or physically weak if managed correctly.
This achievement alone is the perfect kickstart to his campaign of “breaking the stigma” that an HIV diagnosis is always fatal or detrimental to your quality of life. Doctors claim that Thomas’ condition is in fact “undetectable” due to the medication and treatment he undergoes, meaning that it is impossible for him to pass on the disease and that his body is healthy and fully functioning.
Yet Thomas, who is believed to be the first professional sportsman in the UK to openly admit to being HIV positive, is no stranger to facing controversy in the public eye. He came out as gay in 2009 whilst still professionally playing rugby. However, much like in the case of revealing his sexuality, he is hoping that the impact of this distressing ordeal, which has caused him to contemplate suicide, will be extremely influential and in some cases, lifesaving. In time we can hopefully become a society where HIV is perceived in the same way as other treatable medical conditions rather than a social taboo attached with a plethora of negative connotations.
Due to the high mortality rates associated with HIV, for many people a diagnosis would be seen as a death sentence, however this is simply not true. Due to medical advancements it is now possible to ‘suppress’ the virus when detected early enough, meaning that with the right treatment the affected patient will not be able to pass on the virus or suffer any life threatening symptoms themselves, which is the case with 97 per cent of patients currently on treatment.
In today’s society, however, the harrowing stories and depressing statistics of the 1980’s and 1990’s, where the HIV epidemic ran rampant and uncontained across the globe, still take precedent over contemporary scientific fact in many people’s mind.
Many people are still frightened of what a diagnosis could do to their quality of life both physically and socially, meaning that many opt out of being tested as frequently as they should.
In 2017 the charity UNIAIDS revealed that there were an estimated 101,600 people living with HIV or AIDS in the UK but only 92 per cent of these individuals knew they were carrying the disease. Whilst these figures are encouraging, it still means that 1 in 12 HIV suffers are unknowingly at risk of passing on the disease and something must be done to stop this.
It is going to take more than one public figure’s revelation to ‘break the stigma’ surrounding HIV, however, Gareth Thomas and his story make way to raise awareness and educate future generations on how to prevent the spread of and live successfully with HIV.
His revelation has already created a hugely positive reaction with the Dukes of Sussex and Cambridge supporting his brave admission. The Terrence Higgins Trust, a leading HIV specialist charity, also showed gratitude reporting that the day after Thomas’ statement was their busiest for online traffic of the entire year.
All of this is a hugely positive step towards changing attitudes towards HIV and saving the lives of those affected.
Image: Run 4 Wales via Flickr