Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Is PReP our next line of defence against HIV?

I am genuinely frightened of HIV.

Being gay brings inherent complications and I think the one that troubles me the most is having to live with the knowledge that I am part of a group which is at higher risk of being infected with HIV because of our sexual practices and because of the existing prevalence of HIV within our group.

The idea that I could, through something as fantastic and wonderful as sex, be infected with a virus hell-bent on curtailing or at best dominating the rest of my life is terrifying.

Even when I use condoms, get tested, do all the right things, it’s there in the back of my mind.  What if the condom splits? What if I still manage, somehow to contract it even if it doesn’t?  I’m not saying it’s a completely rational fear, but it’s real enough to me to be ever-present and a bit a mood killer.

I am aware that I am beginning to sound paranoid and irrational.  Not every gay man has HIV. Not every unprotected sex session leads to HIV.  HIV is, for those lucky enough to be born in a place with access to the right health care, a manageable disease that people can and do live with for a long, long time.

But you can hardly blame me.  At every given opportunity, rightly so, I am reminded by health care professionals, the media, even my family and friends that I should protect myself against HIV, because it is a threat.

But we can and are trying to reduce that threat.

Taken from the pages of The Proud Study:

“PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) is a new way to reduce the risk of getting HIV. It involves HIV negative people taking a daily tablet that contains drugs commonly used to treat HIV.”

Now this is a pretty extraordinary claim and what do extraordinary claims require? Extraordinary evidence.  Now that, in my opinion, doesn’t exist - yet.  But what evidence does exist is very exciting.

Taken from the CDC webpage:

“In November 2010, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the results of the iPrEx clinical trial, a large, multi-country research study examining PrEP among MSM. The study found that daily oral use of TDF/FTC provided an average of 44% additional protection to MSM who also received a comprehensive package of prevention services that included monthly HIV testing, condom provision, and management of other sexually transmitted infections.

“TDF2, conducted in partnership with the Botswana Ministry of Health, found that once-daily TDF/FTC reduced the risk of acquiring HIV infection by 62 percent overall in the study population of uninfected heterosexually-active men and women.

“Partners PrEP found that two separate antiretroviral regimens – TDF/FTC in combination and tenofovir alone – when provided to uninfected persons whose partners have HIV infection (sero-discordant couples) significantly reduced HIV acquisition (by 75 percent and 67 percent, respectively). Participants in the TDF/FTC group with detectable levels of the medication experienced a 90 percent reduction in risk for HIV infection; in the tenofovir- only group, the presence of medication in the blood was associated with an 86 percent reduction in risk.”

Now those numbers vary WILDLY and more importantly to note, they are reliant on participants practising safe sex and being responsible with their sexual health.  That said, this regime could have the potential to give people that extra level of security and reduce the rate of infection.

This all sounds great, but there are legitimate concerns about how a drug that reduces the chances of HIV infection would effect infection rates of other STDs.  Will people be less likely to use condoms?  Will people have more sex? Will people have a higher number of other sexually transmitted infections?

Well The Proud Study aims to look at just this issue.  It will look at the impact of taking PrEP on men by asking them to keep diaries over two years.  This is taking place at many sites across the country and is recruiting for volunteers.  If you’re interested, you should head over to their site.

In earlier conversations, I drew the comparison to women’s contraception and I think that comparison still holds for me, but not in terms of rights, in terms of control.  Women were given control over their bodies by being given the right to use any number of contraceptive devices and drugs.  Condoms and drugs give me control over my body by giving me defences against HIV and anti-retroviral therapy would help me keep that control, should those defences fail.

For me, this presents an opportunity for me to take even more control over my sexual health.  Whilst I will continue to practise safe sex, should this come to fruition, I could have further confidence that I am safe and that I can enjoy what I’m doing with whoever I’m doing it with.

It’s missing the point to think that this is about the right to have unprotected sex.  This is about reducing the threat of the things that want to hurt us by using every weapon at our disposal and giving all of us the opportunity to live our lives without the looming shadow of HIV. 

More importantly, it’s not about us, the ones with access, that can manage and control it, it’s about them; the ones that are dying.  

If this regime works and if we keep on developing better defences, build the walls higher, spread them further, encompass us all and lock it out, maybe we could starve it to death. 

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Academies still give me the creeps...

It terrifies me the idea of private organisations funding schools and skewing curricula to produce people that are either aligned to their goals and ways of thinking or even worse, are ideal employees for their companies. 

On the surface this seems like almost a positive thing; vocational and targetted training giving people the skills to get the jobs available in their local community. 

But then the more I think about it, the more I worry that it's a slippery slope to people being born in an area or into a family in a particular social demographic having only schools available that train them to do the jobs that people in their area or social demographic have come to be expected to do and then it starts sounding scarily like a caste system.

I know that it is an extreme extrapolation, but even by letting one organisation open a school targetted at a particular group of people in the hopes that you can train them for a particular job, you are limiting their right to self determination - or at the very least deterring them from exercising it.

But then maybe I am being completely paranoid.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Friday, 11 October 2013

“Take heed, all you homosexual sinners.”

I was born in Kent and Canterbury Hospital and grew up opposite the Sir William Nottidge School on Invicta Road. I spent my summers on Tankerton Slopes and my winters tobogganing alongside the Thanet Way. My brother played for Whitstable Wanderers, my sister danced at the local ballet school and my parents were hugely involved in the town’s community.

Whitstable is my home and where I have always felt safe and loved.

But I was absolutely disgusted to see that a letter was printed in the Whitstable Times from a Mr D Bryson regarding the Stonewall bus campaign.

I was even further dismayed by the newspapers response, claiming free speech. The newspaper chose to give the article the title “Take heed, all you homosexual sinners.” I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of the press, absolutely, but this freedom comes with the responsibility of ensuring that those that use their rights to this freedom to spread hate and bigotry are called out and challenged.

I am not going to argue with the religious quote; there is no point and no need. The Whitstable Times is right, this bigot is entitled to his views, but the Whitstable Times have a responsibility to its readership and to the people of Whitstable to ensure everyone knows that this man does not represent our town.

I came out at the age of sixteen and I received all the love and support I could ever have wanted and for this I am forever grateful to the people of Whitstable who knew me when I was going through this incredibly hard time. I implore you to make your voices heard and to show the rest of the world that this man does not represent your town.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Science in context


It’s been a good while since I updated my blog so I thought I would start with a thrilling and exciting discussion on interactivity!

Over the last few months I have been working at Techniquest in Cardiff helping on the floor and working in the science theatre and planetarium. The overall aim of the science discovery centre seems to be the introduction of scientific concepts and the nurturing of visitors interest in science through interactive exhibits and shows.

But how effective is this really and to what extent are these exhibits and shows actually interactive?

Inside Techniquest, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff, Wales                         'Orbits' at Techniquest
Take for example an exhibit called 'Orbits' that consists of a flat surface, deformed in two places to produce 'gravity wells'. Visitors are invited to take balls and roll them around the surface to observe how the gravity wells effect the path they take.

The accompanying explanation indicates that this is a representation of how planets move around stars or any object with mass moves when inside the gravity of well of another mass.

However, from observing the interactions of visitors, this exhibit seems to be engaging and fun, but are visitors actually taking away the core concepts?

By designing the balls to look more like planets, i.e. painting them and designing the surface to look like a star field, the idea that this is how planets move around a gravity well could be more easily interpreted visually even if the visitors do not read the accompanying information. Similarly, the addition of more balls with different sizes and masses would add a new level understanding that gravity acts on objects differently depending on their mass.

As is, without reading the information accompanying the exhibit, which few younger visitors appear to do, the understanding of what the exhibit represents is lost and it just becomes a fun game of which ball is going to go in which hole.

Other exhibits that involve a single user interacting with a simple touch screen animation or an exhibit that takes input from the user to produce a response seem interactive but are based on a pre-programmed sequence of events that is not different to a user browsing through a website. Is this interactivity?

Not only this, but many exhibits engage a primary user and relegate all the other visitors in that users group to the role of observer or interferer. These exhibits may be interactive, but hey limit the social interactions that help cement concepts in visitor’s minds.

If more exhibits were designed in a way that encouraged groups of visitors to interact, communicate and think about the concept that is trying to be conveyed, I think that the message would be much more effectively and efficiently absorbed.

Science discovery centres often want to move away from coming across "museumy", but by doing so they ignore the context of the science. The social, cultural and technological developments that were necessary for our understanding of the concept and the developments, socially, cultural and technologically that came from it.

It is one thing to demonstrate to a child the way that a fan can provide lift for pieces of foam, but how about telling them about aeroplanes, birds, the scientists that discovered and developed the ideas and the way in which it applies to their life.

I think that a fear of being to "museumy" means that visitors are exposed to a disconnected world of colourful "big toys" that demonstrate basic concepts of science without contextualising the importance of these concepts.

It is one thing to understand science; it is another altogether to understand how science affects your life and the world you live in.

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Friday, 10 December 2010

The children of the conned liberals

Yesterday I took part in my first ever tweet storm.

Together with several of my followers and followees, I tracked and quoted my way across the landscape of the fees debate, the vote and the demonstrations.

For hours we pulled together quotes, opinions and live updates from MPs, demonstrators, observers and journalists into multiple feeds which attempted to assemble together the ground up and top down views of the event.

From views we agreed with to views we found despicable, the tweets flowed in.
The topics of discussion ranged from clashes with advocates of violence against the protestors, to concern for those trapped and held in the kettles, to choice sound bites from politicians. Gradually, events unfolded in a glut of information, opinion and action.

When it came time for the vote, my twitter world held its collective breath, though few held out much hope that the vote would come out in favour of the students.

They weren’t wrong.

Support for the proposal was slashed, but the vote passed the motion with a majority of 21, with 25 abstentions.

The clashes between police and protestors had been escalating all day. Alarming was spreading as the tactics used by the police become more and more questionable. Protestors, peaceful and violent alike were being held in kettles by the police, panic spreading through the crowds and injury reports flowing in. Fires were being lit and property was being damaged. Mounted police were charging the crowds, sending people fleeing for their safety, in scenes that sent shockwaves of horror resonating through observers.

After the results were announced, things seemed to be get worse. Protestors were held in kettles for extended periods of time and then funnelled through identification check points. Violent minorities began to really lay into private property and the tweets about police preventing medical treatment began to catch our attention.

Then Charles and Camilla arrived - wrong place, wrong time. A tiny number of violent demonstrators saw a target and took aim.

I woke up this morning fully expecting the press to be awash with clashes between protestors and police, reports about damage to property and condemnation of violent action, but I genuinely believed the focus would have been on the vote. Go on, call me naïve again.

However, I was shocked by the general decision by the press to lead with Charles and Camilla.

No headlines highlighting the broken promises of the Liberal Democrats and their failure to represent the liberals and the youth vote that had put them in power.
Neither was there any headlines highlighting the disproportionate use of force by the police. The disabled protestor pulled from his wheelchair, the bloodied heads, the charging horses, the kettling.

The head of the Met claimed that these measures were in response to protestors not sticking to the agreed route, but who had agreed this route? The NUS? This wasn’t an NUS protest, this was a diverse group of people, teachers, parents, students, objectors that had come together to show their condemnation of the coalition governments proposal.

In my opinion the media has missed the key message of these events. It has played down the actions of those that are supposed to protect the public but have protected the government, choosing instead to focus their coverage on the actions of the violent few who could no longer contain their anger and disappointment.

I am not going to apologise for this minorities actions.

I do not and will never condone violent action.

However, please, for the love of everything this country is supposed to hold dear, tell the story of the protestors.

Tell us the stories from the people inside the kettles, held against their will, without charge, for hours in the freezing cold.

Tell us about how peaceful demonstrators were denied medical treatment and funnelled through identification check points.

Tell us where the student representatives were. What was there part in these protests? Where was Aaron Porter?

Tell us about the abstainers who could have swung the vote.

Tell us about the broken promises of the people that we trusted and voted into power.

Tell us about the commendable actions of the many, instead of focusing on the deplorable actions of the few.

Don’t tell us about the brief involvement of icons of a generation that is no longer relevant.

Above all, tell us about how the Liberal Democrats have sold out to gain power and sentenced the next generation to crippling debt and an education system that will be even more class based and inaccessible to those from low income backgrounds than it already is.

Tell us about how this is going to condemn our children.

The children of the conned liberals.
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Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Education is a right, not a privilege - or obligation?

So back in 2002 we were protesting against top up fees.

Now, eight years later we're protesting against further increases in fees.

The arguments are essentially the same. Higher costs price lower income students out of an education they have a right to.

"Education is a right, not a privilege", that’s what we were chanting back in 2002. I still believe this, but it has taken me a while to get behind the current round of protests.

To begin with, I had a Tory boy moment and decided that, as long as the extra money did find its way back to the students in the form of better facilities and increased amounts of contact time, and then it was probably going to be a good thing in the long term.

Students and parents of the current university bound generation would struggle, yes, but the following generations would just have to accept that they would have to save over a longer period and grants need be provided to help the lowest income families.

Spiralling student debt would be offset by higher repayment thresholds and variable interest rates, it all seemed to make a vague amount of sense to me.

Sarah Teather MP addressing a Liberal Democrat...Image via Wikipedia
So, maybe this is the rationale for Sarah Teather and co abandoning their belief that "All the evidence suggests that fear of debt will deter those from lower income families and ethnic minority communities", (from her maiden speech to the house of commons).

But seeing as this appears to be quite an epic swing, it would be nice if we could get some clarification on why they changed their positions, Teather in particular. Does Teather believe that there will be enough support systems in place that 'lower income families' will not be excluded? Or has she just abandoned them? I don't think the latter is true, but then I've been called naive more than once.

Unfortunately, we don't have an answer yet, and if this clip is anything to go by, we're going to have to wait until she's had adequate time to prepare a well composed, perfectly spun piece to camera to clarify her position.

Again with the naivety, I voted Lib Dem because I thought, ha, that it might mean a different kind of politics, but it appears that getting into bed with the Tories means you start playing the bedroom games their way. Kinky.

After seeing the demonstrations, the occupations and reading blogs and articles a-plenty, my opinion has been somewhat swayed. Not because I think that an increase in fees is itself a bad idea, but because I have very little confidence that the money will find its way to the students in any kind of real beneficial way.

I have never been a supporter of target based policies; 50% of school leavers going to University was always, in my opinion, a poor vision. I would support a policy that sees the people who are going to benefit from a degree going to university, supported financially, socially and where necessary, educationally, to do so.

I don't think that university should be for 'smart' people. I think it should be for those that want to learn, whatever their ability level.

I don't think that university should only be for those that can afford it, whatever the institution they want to go to. All students should have equal opportunity to access the best resources, with entry requirements being merit based, not financial.

I don't think that university should be the assumed natural next step after school. Most students would benefit greatly from working first, finding out whether a degree is actually going to be of benefit to them, before investing the time and money only to end up in a job that they could have worked their way into, earning along the way rather than accruing debt.

I was 21 when I went into university. Not a mature student really, but that extra two years, working in a call centre, cemented in my mind that if I wanted to achieve the things I had planned for myself, University was the way forward.

Now, many years later, after getting my degree, working in a bar for a year, I'm studying for a masters. My debt is spiralling, but I am still confident that it is a good investment.

Maybe the levels of debt proposed by the coalition government might put people off going to University, but for those who need to and for those that really want to I don’t think it will deter them.

I worry about a class based education system, but then do we not have one of those now anyway? Look at the Oxford and Cambridge students. Look at the top ten universities. Tell me we don't have a class based system.

Look at the schools these students come from, their parent’s socio-economic status, their cultural capital. Tell me we don't have a class based system.

I don't want to be an apologiser for the Lib Dem sell outs; I do think they have sold out on fundamental values, but maybe if they would talk to us, explain why they've changed their position, justify the increases, give us some sort of assurance that the support will be there and the funds will reach the students, we might be a bit happier to sell out too.
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