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The power of great telly: It’s A Sin’s effect on HIV testing and awareness

Terrence Higgins Trust CEO Ian Green reflects on the impact of It's A Sin as we mark World AIDS Day.

Published: Wednesday, 1st December 2021 at 7:00 am

By: Ian Green, CEO of Terrence Higgins Trust

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I’ve got to be honest. Before it aired, a lot of us at Terrence Higgins Trust were pretty worried that It’s A Sin – set during the height of the UK AIDS crisis – would set us back to the 1980s in terms of public perceptions of HIV.

We worried people would see the AIDS powerfully depicted by Russell T Davies and conflate it with HIV in the UK today – that a significant chunk of the hard work by so many to update the public’s knowledge of HIV would be quickly undone on primetime Channel 4 every Friday night.

And we were so concerned because the general public’s perceptions of HIV are absolutely crucial. It’s the outdated knowledge of others that fuels the stigma surrounding HIV, which in turn affects the lives, relationships and mental health of those of us living with the virus. It’s often also what stops people from coming forward to get tested – because they’re too scared (although they shouldn’t and mustn’t be).

In advance of episode one, we mobilised to try and shout about all the progress made in the fight against HIV: you can live a long, healthy life with HIV! There’s a pill HIV negative people can take to protect against the virus! HIV positive parents can and do have babies free of the virus!

And the one we know has the most impact in tackling stigma: that someone living with HIV and on effective treatment (like me) can’t pass it on. We are not infectious and not to be feared. I even said as much in an article for RadioTimes.com at the time.

It's A Sin

But we needn’t have worried. Because the series and its incredible cast did quite the opposite: they moved us forward and used each episode as an opportunity to firstly engage and then to educate. We even worked with Channel 4 to ensure the progress for people living with HIV was communicated as the credits rolled at the end of each breathtaking episode.

Brilliantly (and coincidentally), National HIV Testing Week fell during the broadcast of It’s A Sin and – rather than scaring people – the series motivated more people than ever before to get tested and order a free HIV test kit to do at home.

On the very first day, over 8,000 tests were ordered. This was considerably higher than on any day in the campaign’s history, bolstered by Olly Alexander (who played Ritchie Tozer in the series) posting on his social media all about the progress in HIV and sharing our link to order a free test.

If that doesn’t demonstrate the power of telly to change lives and influence behaviour, then I don’t know what does. 

The first episode (and the boxset being made available on All 4) also inspired viewers in their droves to find out more about HIV today – and what had happened to transform the epidemic in the last 40 years. There was a 1,900 per cent increase in Google searches for “how many people died of AIDS in the 1980s” and 4,300 per cent jump in searches for “does AIDS cause fits” in relation to one of the storylines featuring the character Colin. And, for the record: no it doesn’t, but you can experience seizures as a result of a highly compromised immune system resulting from untreated HIV.

Then traffic to our website more than doubled during the airing of the show. The biggest change was a surge in people visiting pages about our history and work in the 1980s. As well as interest in the latest HIV statistics and how the virus is transmitted – clear evidence of viewers wanting to educate themselves about the realities of HIV today rather than wallowing in where we were in the 1980s. 

We also saw a surge in calls to our free and confidential advice line THT Direct with a 30 per cent jump after episode one. Then there was the impact of people realising how important our work is and stepping up to fundraise for us. Raising the money we need to in order to changes lives isn’t always easy – again, because of the stigma – and we’re so grateful to all of those who do.

There were so many amazing ways in which people chose to support people living with and affected by HIV through us, with designer Philip Normal’s “La.” t-shirts (inspired by what the residents of the Pink Palace say to one another) raising an incredible £500,000 to support our work. In fact, I’m the proud owner of a whole host of It’s A Sin-related products, from hoodies and mugs to beautiful prints.

All of this goes to show the impact of important topics being brought into living rooms and humanised by characters we grow to know and love. We worked with EastEnders back in the ‘90s when established character Mark Fowler was diagnosed with HIV to make sure the portrayal was accurate – to show the misinformed stigma (for example, when he’s thrown out of the Queen Vic) alongside the actual realities of life with the virus. We’ve since worked with Hollyoaks, Coronation Street and Doctors too.

These storylines have helped move us forward. In fact, one of my colleagues recently told me Seb on Corrie being HIV positive made telling her mum she’s living with HIV a little more straightforward than she thought it would be.

A limitation of It’s A Sin was that it centred on the gay male experience of HIV in the UK and it isn’t alone in this. So many people I talk to are still shocked when I tell them around a third of people living with HIV in the UK are women and that globally there are more women than men who are HIV positive. In fact, after the first episode of It’s A Sin, we also saw a 2,150 per cent jump in searches for “can women get AIDS”.

Coronation Street’s recent storyline centred around a straight male, while Emmerdale’s Val (a middle-aged white woman) contracted HIV following a holiday fling. But there are more stories we can and need to tell to reflect the diversity of the modern HIV epidemic because the reality is that HIV can affect anyone and, in the UK, heterosexual men and those aged 65 and over are most likely to be diagnosed late because they don’t consider themselves at risk and don’t think to test.

It's a Sin friends Roscoe (Omari Douglas), Jill (Lydia West), Gregory "Gloria" (David Carlyle), Colin (Callum Scott Howells) and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) in episode 5

A million miles away from the devastation of AIDS viewers saw in It’s A Sin, we are now aiming to end new HIV cases in the UK by 2030. That’s because we have all the tools available to stop anyone else receiving that life-changing diagnosis – the one I was given back in 1996.

But having the tools isn’t enough, we also need the general public to know the facts about HIV and act on them; for rejections on dating apps to end, for tasteless ‘AIDS jokes’ to no longer be considered funny and for the fear of testing for HIV to be removed.

And we all have a part to play in that. So, writers, keep writing about HIV. Tell our compelling stories in a way that captivates audiences in their millions but also educates and destigmatises. And, viewers, keep watching and keep chatting about what you’ve learned because we need to mobilise everything we can to end new HIV cases by 2030 – and TV and film has an absolute role to play in that.

Visit www.tht.org.uk for more information or to make a donation to Terrence Higgins Trust.

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It's A Sin is available to watch on All 4. If you're looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide. Visit our Drama hub for all the latest news.

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