DR MAX PEMBERTON: It's A Sin there's still HIV stigma today

DR MAX PEMBERTON: It’s A Sin there’s still HIV stigma today

  • Channel 4’s It’s A Sin is the new drama from Doctor Who writer Russell T. Davies 
  • Charts the lives of a group of people who move to London during  HIV/AIDS crisis
  • Dr Max Pemberton experienced life in a London hospital at the end of the crisis

Have you been watching Channel 4’s It’s A Sin, the new drama from Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies? It charts the lives of a group of youngsters who move to London in the early 1980s, only to find themselves in the middle of the unfolding HIV/AIDS crisis.

What I loved in particular was how it portrayed the women — friends, mothers, sisters — who were so involved, providing love and care to young men as they died.

It’s tough viewing in parts, as it doesn’t flinch away from revealing the tragedy of the time.

I watched it with interest because I caught the end of that period during my training as a doctor in Central London in the late 1990s, and vividly recall people dying of AIDS.

Channel 4’s It’s A Sin (pictured) is the new drama from Doctor Who writer Russell T. Davies

I remember being on a ward round as a consultant delivered the devastating news to a 20-year-old man — the age I was at the time — that he was positive, and that his weakened immune system meant a virus had infected his eyes and made him blind.

I remember him breaking down, inconsolable, as he realised he would likely die.

I watched people die of horrible cancers and infections.

One young man, only a few years older than me, got dementia due to an obscure virus attacking his brain. Another died after bread mould invaded his lungs. It was a profoundly awful time.

How everything has changed. Since then, there have been incredible pharmacological advances in how the HIV virus is treated and managed.

For the past 20 years we have had medication which can support the infected person’s immune system and prevent AIDS and subsequent death. Thankfully, it’s now incredibly rare to die as a result of HIV/AIDS in this country.

Despite working in the centre of London with high-risk groups such as sex workers and drug addicts, I haven’t seen someone die of it for years.

Dr Max (pictured) experienced life working as a doctor in a London hospital at the end of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the late 1990s

This shift has been so dramatic that HIV/AIDS wards and specialist units have actually closed simply because there is no longer the number of patients to fill them.

This would seem an impossible dream to the people who, in the 1980s and 1990s, watched in horror as loved ones faded away and died while doctors stood by, helpless.

What is truly startling is the speed with which medicine responded to HIV, and turned it from a virus imbued with abject fear to something that is now utterly treatable and far from a death sentence.

In fact, studies have shown that for those now diagnosed with HIV, life expectancy is the same as someone without the virus. As they are regularly seen by a doctor, many actually have better health outcomes than the general population.

Medication also means that those with HIV can become ‘undetectable’, meaning that they can’t pass it on.

When I discussed this TV programme with some of the junior doctors at work, they really couldn’t believe that things had been so bad back in the 1980s and 1990s.

They had no idea, and were astonished that an entire generation of young gay men had been treated so abysmally and wiped out by the virus.

The problem, though, is that people’s attitudes have not kept pace with medical advances. The fear and prejudice from that era is still present. It may no longer be so overt, but make no mistake, it runs through people’s attitudes towards those who are HIV positive.

Those with HIV live in fear of being rejected by family and friends and shunned at work.

It remains an illness shrouded in secrecy and shame, and this can have a tremendous toll on patients’ wellbeing.

A 2018 report by Public Health England found that the main disparity in quality of life for those with HIV compared to those without was mental health.

Adele’s divorce

Singer Adele reached a divorce settlement with her ex-husband after opting for mediation to avoid a nasty ‘Hollywood-style’ split.

The focus was their son, Angelo. I wish other parents would follow their example. As a doctor, I know the potential for damage to children in acrimonious divorces is considerable. 

Many suffer terribly as a result of fearing the response to their illness. Rates of depression in those with HIV are nearly ten times higher than the general public, in no small part because of the stigma attached to the condition.

Now, when someone is diagnosed, the medical team will often focus on how to manage the social impact of the virus just as much as — if not more than — the physical aspects.

It’s the fear of being ostracised that is the biggest problem for those who are newly diagnosed, not the virus itself.

Even in the gay community, there is still a great deal of ignorance about HIV, and considerable prejudice towards those who are positive.

It’s not uncommon for people to talk about being ‘clean’ to mean HIV negative, as though being positive is somehow dirty, corrupt or tainted.

What a tragedy that medicine has come so far, and transformed the lives of those with this infection, yet they still face so many hurdles.

We’re now at the stage where it is society’s attitude, rather than the virus itself, that makes HIV so scary.

It is high time that people move on from the past, catch up with reality and end the prejudice against HIV for good.


If we think back to those dark days in spring when the pandemic was taking hold, Captain Sir Tom Moore was an important symbol of defiance. His attitude — reminding us that there will be brighter days, and to keep calm and be kind — was a beacon of hope we all needed. 

If we think back to those dark days in spring when the pandemic was taking hold, Captain Sir Tom Moore (pictured) was an important symbol of defiance

But I also thought he provided an edifying lesson on how much we all have to offer regardless of our age. It’s easy for people in their middle to older years to assume that if they haven’t yet achieved something, it won’t happen. I see this a lot in patients. They fear their career hasn’t quite taken off, or they haven’t found love or made the difference to the world that they wanted to when they were young. They feel sad, disillusioned, sometimes embittered.

Yet there are plenty of people — like Sir Tom — whose lives build at a different pace, who achieve the most later in life. Remember: it’s never too late to make your mark.

  • Lady Sophie Windsor, who is married to the Queen’s cousin once removed, Lord Frederick Windsor, and is patron of the charity School-Home Support, has said lockdown is a ‘living hell’ for many poorer children. She added that they’re enduring a ‘silent pandemic’ of abuse and malnourishment. This is precisely why I’m such a passionate supporter of the Mail’s home-schooling campaign, Computers for Kids, which aims to deliver laptops and improve the educational chances for the poorest children during lockdown. Good on Lady Sophie for speaking up for them.


I love surrounding myself with greenery, and if you’re the same, take a look at The Glasshouse (theglasshouse.co.uk), which not only sells plants, but does some good.

The social enterprise offers a second chance to prisoners by giving them horticultural training in the disused glasshouses of UK prisons. 

By buying the plants they nurture, you’ll be supporting this brilliant initiative.

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