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Student Ambassador Abi Alsop writes from Manchester about complacency and conquering HIV at her University.

People say ignorance is bliss. Yet, I’m also told that knowledge is the antidote to fear. This poses a difficult question. Would I rather be dwelling in complete disregard or in a jarring awareness of reality?

As young people I think we are often faced with this juxtaposition. Many under 25 year olds are on the blade-edge of ignoring the worlds issues and leaving them to the ‘real adults’, or actually confronting them head on with great drive and passion.

For me, HIV has always been a far off issue from my happy, secure and relatively privileged student life. I was well versed on the statistics and appalled by the prevalence of such a treatable virus. Yet, never fully grasped what it would look like, how it would feel, and why so many people were still concerned with it in this modern time.


Here’s some information on HIV if you’re unaware of the virus:

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that is contracted through bodily fluid during unprotected sex, contaminated blood transfusions, hypodermic needles or from mother to child during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. The virus attacks your body’s immune system decreasing its ability to fight off other viruses, infections and bacteria. Unlike some other viruses, the human body cannot get rid of HIV. Whilst no cure for HIV currently exists, it can be controlled with proper medical care.

Treatment for HIV is called antiretroviral therapy (ART or ARVs). If someone is HIV positive and is receiving effective treatment, they can have a fairly normal life expectancy and their chances of infecting others are reduced by 96%, which means treatment can also be used as prevention!

University Student are a key demographic for HIV awareness

Being a Chasing Zero Ambassador has opened my eyes to the importance of talking about HIV and AIDS within the student community. AIDS is one of the biggest killers among young people worldwide. Additionally, a quarter of people in the UK living with AIDS do not know they are infected. So, no, ignorance really isn’t the paradise we’re sold. Through education and raising awareness of the realities of HIV we can chase zero HIV/AIDS related deaths.

I recently attended an event hosted by Youth Stop Aids (Manchester), a youth-led movement campaigning for a world without AIDS. The event offered an opportunity to hear first-hand the inspiring stories of young people overcoming the toughest hurdles to make a change. The evening moved people to tears and laughter as their powerful stories weaved together humour, positivity and their emotionally hard-hitting experiences.

We heard tales of rejection, humiliation, broken relationships, tormenting mental illness, yet amongst all this pain was hope. Hope in the knowledge and understanding of the virus that had made a home in their bodies. Hope in the ground-breaking research and medicines that help them to lead ‘normal’, healthy lives. Hope in the support they found in the HIV positive community and beyond. Hope that we can end AIDS.

Student Ambassador Abi Alsop at a society event for World Aid's day
Reflecting on that evening I realised how I, a reasonably well educated campaigner for ending AIDS still clung to the age-old stigma of the virus. If I’m honest, I committed the act least desired by the amazing young people who spoke – I made them a statistic.

I categorised them, labelled them, and didn’t fully challenge my views of HIV and its impact. In order to break the perpetuating cycle of stigma, visibility, honesty and powerful story sharing is key. After all, at the centre of campaigning and activism are human beings. Therefore, complacency is a killer.

The speakers Jimmy, Beccy and Krishen aren’t facts or medical cases. They’re people. They’re 20- something’s with jobs, families, dreams and passion. Their desire for advocacy was tangible. The rawness of their emotion could be felt through the cracking of their voices and seen in the deep furrows on their forehead.

The main message – we can beat AIDS, but It Ain’t Over.

We wrote to the government and to local MPs to urge them to re-prioritise tackling HIV and AIDS globally and lead the world in beating it by 2030. Going forwards I am hoping to partner as a Chasing Zero Student Ambassador with the Youth Stop Aids society at the University of Manchester to raise the profile of HIV on campus. As the enigmatic human rights campaigner Nelson Mandela once said,

‘In the face of the grave threat posed by HIV/AIDS, we have to rise above our differences and combine our efforts to save our people.’


This learning experience has re-written my perspective on HIV. I’m now more positive (Excuse the accidental pun) and excited than ever that we, young people, can have a role in making history.

Together we can beat AIDS.


Chase zero with us!

Every year is crucial now as we chase the goal of the end of AIDS by 2030. It’s vital we keep up the momentum. Will you get involved in 2017? Join the chase and help make history!

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About an hour off-road from the city of Mzuzu in Northern Malawi lies Kamwe, one of the communities that our Pregnancy Twinning programme works in. Pregnancy risks are six times higher for women in this region who are living with HIV, so we work to bring maternal health care to them, making sure they stay healthy and give birth to HIV-free children. We had been jolting down a dirt track for half an hour on the way to Kamwe when we overtook a cart pulled by two oxen and driven by a boy of about twelve.

“That’s how they get to the hospital, y’know…” our colleague Joshua remarked.

the world's slowest ox-pulled ambulance

He went on to explain how difficult and expensive transport is – you could easily live 15km from the nearest clinic and public transport doesn’t stretch this far off-road. Hospital birth rates are much lower for rural mums than urban mums because of the difficulty of this journey. So the villagers have started to find their own solutions; now whenever a woman goes into labour, there will be a way to get into town provided by the community… and one of those ways is the trusty ox-cart.

Looking back I saw the cart, now in the distance but still moving at 2mph. I imagined it also towing a mum in labour – how she’d be concentrating on her breathing and counting the seconds between contractions while travelling in the world’s slowest ambulance. I thought, surely this is the most bizarre labour transport story I’ll hear today. But no…

The Chief’s scooter


Hours later I was sat on a bench across from the 72 year-old Chief of the district. He was seated in a rusted hospital chair – its back legs wedged into the ground, with front wheels lifted into the air. He solemnly told us stories about expectant mums delivering on the roadside on their way to the hospital or in their own one-room homes alone at night time; how many of the expectant mums were already sick from living with HIV and were sometimes too weak to pull through from a difficult childbirth. He told us of the many maternal deaths he knew of in his district, and of the one he had witnessed.

Lastly, he told us that over recent years, all this has changed. In Kamwe, maternal deaths have now completely stopped happening.

He attributed this change to three things: the presence and help of our Mother Buddies, the village women completely adhering to their advice on HIV treatment and antenatal care, and lastly to his very own 1970s Yamaha scooter…

The village’s efforts to provide transport in emergencies even extended to the Chief, who proudly showed us his blue scooter parked in the shade of a nearby tree. This humble 50cc engine had been to the rescue of many a pregnant woman.

“The first time it was 2am,” he told us. “One of my farmers had run to my house calling out that his wife, Bertha, was in labour. I rode to their house and she climbed onto the back of the bike. Waters broken and contractions getting close, we drove to the clinic in the pitch black.”

They arrived at the nearest clinic 25 minutes later. Having been chauffeured by the Chief on a scooter older than she was, Bertha was handed over the the midwife who safely delivered her firstborn baby, a boy.

The gift of a lift

Not all of our supported communities have these arrangements to provide for their mums-to-be, and nationwide the leading cause of maternal deaths rurally are delays caused by transport difficulties – delays accessing antenatal care and delays getting to the clinic in labour. It’s astounding that something so easy to fix causes so many tragedies.

This Christmas, we want to tackle this issue for mums across Malawi by covering cost of a transport service in other communities so that all of the expectant mums we support can make the journey to life after birth. 

Want to help? For £12, you can buy somebody an alternative Christmas gift this year – a lift to the hospital for a woman like Bertha! 

Find out more and give the gift of a lift here >>

The Chief and his scooter

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