TV soaps have a long, long history of reaching millions in a way that no leaflet or public health campaign ever could.


A groundbreaking example of this was Mark Fowler’s HIV diagnosis in EastEnders back in 1991, with mum Pauline muttering: “You’ve got AIDS...” providing that Boxing Day’s doof doof moment.

This was the start of what became a decade-long HIV storyline for the drama to raise desperately needed awareness, show the realities of HIV in the 1990s and, as importantly, to humanise the virus through one of its most beloved characters in one of its most established families.

Now, more than 30 years later, EastEnders is doing the same again and working with us at Terrence Higgins Trust again too. And it’s great timing because since all the awareness raising done three decades ago, there’s been huge progress – which means awareness needs to be raised all over again. With some more doof doof moments very overdue.

That’s because incredible medication now means you can live a long, healthy life with HIV. Doof doof.

People living with HIV can and do have children who are HIV-negative. Doof doof.

Effective treatment means you can’t pass HIV on to partners. Not might not, or probably won’t, but can’t pass it on. Doof doof doof doof doof doof.

The 2023 version of Mark’s storyline sees ‘resident hunk’ Zack Hudson (played by actor James Farrar) diagnosed with HIV. Like Mark, Zack is heterosexual and a central character as Sharon’s half-brother and Whitney’s on-off boyfriend.

Zack being straight is particularly timely as the latest stats show a 41 per cent fall in straight men testing for HIV compared to 2019 – mostly likely one of many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic – while this group is also one of the most likely to be diagnosed late, with 63 per cent of heterosexual men diagnosed in 2021 finding out they’re HIV positive at a late stage.

So, while the storyline is about awareness raising (and, of course, being dramatic and entertaining), it’s also about inspiring action. And now’s the perfect time as National HIV Testing Week continues, with loads of opportunities to get tested – including by ordering a free HIV test kit to do at home with a result in just 15 minutes.

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What’s particularly exciting about a HIV storyline in a soap is that they don’t just do the diagnosis and immediate aftermath like a single episode arc in Casualty or a three-part drama. They show the days, weeks, months and years that follow. Which means they can show the initial trauma and stigma – but then also the education, the understanding and the processing.

James Farrar as Zack Hudson in EastEnders. BBC/Jack Barnes/Kieron McCarron

I was diagnosed with HIV back in 1996 – which is nearly 27 years ago now and five or so years after Mark. I remember the storyline so vividly because it brought HIV into the mainstream. My mum and dad were Coronation Street fans, but so many millions watched EastEnders back then.

It raised awareness and improved understanding, but it also scared me. As a young gay man I was already so frightened and aware of HIV, and now I could see the stigma play out twice-a-week on TV – Mark’s dad Arthur bleaching the house, Peggy Mitchell throwing him out of the Queen Vic.

Now HIV is no longer a scary story or something to fear. Yes, it’s not something you want to contract and you should think proactively about protecting yourself. But HIV has changed – we have incredible ways of preventing, testing for and treating HIV.

Zack’s story will be happy one. And, if it’s not, it won’t be because of the health impacts of HIV. But it may be because of HIV stigma, discrimination and outdated views, which is a tragedy when the medical progress has been so rapid and outcomes are so transformed.

And that’s what EastEnders, its writers and its actors are helping us to do – to slowly, episode by episode, chip away at the stigma. As someone directly affected by the stigma, for that I am very thankful.

National HIV Testing Week starts today and you can order a free HIV test online via the It Starts With Me website. For advice and information, you can call Terrence Higgins Trust’s free support line, THT Direct, on 0808 802 1221.

Visit our dedicated EastEnders page for all the latest news, interviews and spoilers. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide or Streaming Guide or visit our Soaps hub.


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