How did I survive?

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iol scitehc july 24 elton jhn

AP

Sir Elton John speaks at the XIX International Aids Conference in Washington.

London - Here's a story of a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, who got mixed up in drugs and drink. He took chances with unprotected sex, and he was at very high risk of contracting HIV. He hit rock bottom, his life was a mess.

He should have died, to be honest, and he almost did. But then, something amazing happened. People showed him compassion and love, respect and understanding. He turned his life around. He has a wonderful life, a loving partner, and a beautiful son and he's been sober for 22 years.

By all rights, I shouldn't be here. I should be dead, six feet under, in a wooden box. I should have contracted HIV in the 1980s and died in the 1990s, just like Freddie Mercury, Rock Hudson and many friends and loved ones.

Every day, I wonder: how did I survive? I don't know the answer, but I do know that the message that saved my life is the message that can save millions of lives if we put it into practice: everyone deserves compassion and dignity and everyone deserves love. The Aids disease is caused by a virus, but the Aids epidemic is not. It is fuelled by stigma, hate, misinformation, ignorance and indifference.

There's much talk now about the end of Aids and rightly so. We can end Aids; thanks to research and advocacy, we have life-saving treatment and prevention. But that's not good enough. It's just not good enough to beat this disease once and for all. We need more than medicine and we need more than money - we also need love.

Over three decades of this epidemic we've seen how human beings react when people around them become HIV-positive. Some look at the sick and search for reasons to blame them. They live immoral lives so they deserve to be sick and to die, they've brought it on themselves. And others look at the sick and think of reasons to love them. You're ill? I'll be ill one day, too. You're dying? There will come a time when I am also dying. How can I help you? How can I love you?

After 31 years and 30 million people gone, we have seen both responses. Hate in Uganda, stigma in Ukraine, indifference in America. It makes me sick, all of this fear, ignorance and hate. But we've also seen love. We've seen monks working with drug addicts in Thailand, social workers helping HIV-positive prisoners, corporations putting lives ahead of profits or gay men living with Aids in San Francisco joining hands with heterosexual women living with Aids in Botswana.

More than eight million people are now on treatment and we can see an end to this epidemic on the horizon. But it's going to take a hell of a lot more compassion to get us there. How can compassion get us to our destination? We're not going to end new infections among injection drug users by locking them up or leaving them to die of addiction or Aids; that just spreads the disease and the suffering. We need to give them love, support, clean needles, and treatment. We're not going to curb new infections among men who have sex with men in Africa by stoning gay men and passing laws against homosexuality. To stop the epidemic in South Africa tell those living with HIV to be proud that they know their status: that's what the government there is beginning to do, and it's working.

To end the epidemic in America show compassion to those who can't afford treatment, the HIV-positive people in Washington DC, most of whom are poor and black and forgotten, even though they live in the capital of the richest nation on earth. America has shown so much love for those living with HIV in the developing world. If it wanted to end new infections at home it could do so in a heartbeat.

All it takes is a bit more funding, and a bit more understanding. Maybe you think I'm hopelessly naïve or off my rocker. I know we need more than love and compassion. We need prevention programmes to be funded. We need treatment programmes to be expanded and we need a vaccine to be discovered. But even if we had all that - even if we had a vaccine - it wouldn't be enough. A vaccine won't end stigma in Eastern Europe nor homophobia in Uganda. A vaccine won't end rapes in South Africa and it won't help poor people who can't afford treatment in Asia. A vaccine won't change laws in America that criminalise those with HIV.

Science can stop the disease, but science alone can't end the plague. We now have miraculous treatments that double as prevention. But we can't get those living with HIV on treatment if they're afraid to disclose their status because of stigma or homophobia.

I pray that one day we will have a vaccine but we won't be able to get it to all those in need without the compassion of governments. Millions of people feel ashamed because of their HIV-positive status, because of their sexuality, because of their poverty. Shame and stigma prevent them from getting help, from getting treatment, from protecting themselves in the first place. I've felt that shame before. It almost killed me and it's killing people all around the world, right now. We have to replace the shame with love, the stigma with compassion. That is how we will end this plague.

Love is the most powerful force in the world and I know that from experience. During the darkest days of my recovery from addiction, I was shown extraordinary compassion by people I didn't even know. Their love changed my life. It saved my life. The gift of love from strangers, from a community of people who believe in you and support you, is one of the most remarkable gifts you could ever receive.

Everyone deserves it. Not nearly enough people receive it. But we can do something about that and when we do, we will wake up from this 30-year nightmare into a brand new day.

* This is an edited version of the keynote address given by Elton John to the 2012 International Aids Conference in Washington DC - The Independent

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