Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). I thank him for his contribution and his knowledge of his constituency. I also thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols). She led a debate yesterday on mindfulness, which I attended, and she led this debate on HIV testing exceptionally well.
I am the Democratic Unionist party’s health spokesperson, so it is a pleasure for me to be here to make a contribution. I always like speak in such debates if possible. Once or twice I have missed them, but I am very pleased to be here today. We celebrate the fact that HIV is now a disease that people can live with, and can enjoy a better life with. That is something to celebrate.
National HIV Testing Week lasts from 5 to 11 February, and special recognition is deserved for reaching a decade since it started. We should look at what has been done in the last 10 years—how we have progressed and done better, and how people have a better quality of life today. It is important to mark this week in Parliament, as testing is the only way for people to know if they have HIV. The Father of the House said that he would go and get a test, even though he does not need one. He said that people should recognise that testing is important. The latest figures show that rate of HIV diagnosis is falling, but people of a heterosexual orientation are getting more HIV diagnoses, so there is a lot of work still to do. Testing is free, quick and easy, so it is imperative that people of all ages are aware of the services available to them and take advantage of them to prevent passing it on to others.
I would point the Minister, for whom I have great respect—I understand her deep interest in this subject and very much look forward to her response today—to the issue of PrEP, which the hon. Member for Hammersmith referred to. In Northern Ireland, we have had a very successful campaign on that for some time, which seeks to raise awareness, reduce sexual diseases and then, by its very nature, give people longer lives.
Some 69,000 HIV tests were carried out in Northern Ireland in 2020; from those, there were 52 new diagnoses, bringing the total number of people diagnosed with the disease in Northern Ireland to 1,123. With a population the size of ours, we might say that those figures are not bad—I do not think they are. It illustrates that testing and the use of PrEP, among other policies in Northern Ireland, have enabled us to reduce diagnoses and keep them at a manageable figure. That is a decline of 49% from 2015, which is a massive success story. There has been a declining trend in the annual number of diagnoses in people born in the UK. There is no doubt that we are doing our best to encourage people to partake in testing.
It is important to recognise how far we have come since the ’70s and ’80s, when there was a huge stigma around HIV diagnosis, testing and treatment. As I have said, I am my party’s health spokesperson, so I try never to miss these debates. It is amazing to see how far we have advanced since then, both socially and medically, and it is important to say how wonderful our NHS is, being capable of transforming what was once a much-feared virus into something that is now easily treated. That does not mean we become nonchalant in relation to it; it means we have to recognise what we have done, and then recognise what our policy will be for the next period, because people are now able to live long, healthy lives through treatment.
I look to the Minister for a commitment that we will dedicate more resources to educating young people on HIV and other viruses that can be passed on through infected bodily fluids. Many young people will not remember, or even be aware of, the years when HIV was a massive concern to so many. It is crucial that we keep on raising that awareness today, and that young people are encouraged to test, if necessary, and to have those conversations with family and friends, to ensure they do not have the disease and that they are safe, well and healthy.
Where we can do that most effectively is in schools and universities, which have a role to play in ensuring that young people feel comfortable and have a safe place where they can speak to someone privately. The Father of the House was absolutely right: these subjects are sometimes difficult to deal with, and those conversations may need to be private. Many universities already have sexual health clinics, which are fantastic services to offer young people.
So many organisations do incredibly hard work to provide support for other nations with a high prevalence of HIV. In National HIV Testing Week, I want to make a plea to the Minister. Ards Elim church in Newtownards, in my constituency, operates aid and missions out of the church and is incredibly active with missionaries in Africa, especially in Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Every year, a group of young people come to our constituency, every one of whom is HIV-positive—their parents had it, and they have it—but they are living their life today because of the new medications that we have. I feel greatly encouraged when I see them and when I hear them singing in their heavenly voices. It reminds me that we in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have done magnificent work out in Swaziland, Zimbabwe and across Africa. I know it is not the Minister’s responsibility, but could she perhaps give a hint or write a letter to myself and others on what can be done to continue the work on HIV in Swaziland and Zimbabwe? It is of great interest to my constituents who attend that church.
At one stage, 40% of the population of Swaziland were HIV-positive, but today, after receiving medications and doing testing campaigns, the rate there is manageable. If that is not a success story, I would like to know what is. As many will know, there is a high prevalence of HIV in certain parts of Africa, and the ministry is keen to secure help for young children and parents who are suffering. There is so much ambition to help others, as it has been proven that catching cases early through frequent testing hinders the spread and lessens the impact of HIV on an individual. Across the UK, we are successful with our figures. Can the Minister provide some clarity on whether we are able to help other countries in desperate need as well?
This week is another opportunity to encourage people to take advantage of services offered to combat HIV. There is fantastic potential to protect people from HIV and to prevent severe illness and even death. When I think of the royal family, I often think of Princess Diana and the work she did when she was alive. She reached out and was one of those great motivators who tried to make sure that people across the world knew that HIV should not and would not be a death sentence.
To conclude, I thank the local health trusts in Northern Ireland, and indeed across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, for providing these worthwhile facilities. I call on the Government and the Minister to ensure that we continue to provide sufficient testing services to all across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as testing has proven instrumental in saving lives. Why would we not celebrate an occasion like this, when across this great United Kingdom, many more people are alive today because of what we have done?