Gareth Thomas took his fight in combating myths around HIV to Scotland as a game-changing Glasgow congress revealed just how far public perceptions are lagging behind scientific and medical advances.
The world’s leading medical experts gathered for HIV Glasgow at the city’s SEC on Tuesday, a high-profile international congress on drug therapy in HIV infection.
But while the science and medicine around treatments excels, such advances are not mirrored by public knowledge and awareness.
This fuelled Wales rugby legend Thomas’ ambition to embark on a Tackle HIV Myth Bus Tour around the UK, encouraging people to check their HIV status and to start a conversation, with as many as 400,000 people at risk of dying from stigma around HIV in the next 20 years.
Thomas, speaking from the bus outside the SEC, said: “People are scared to have a conversation.
“When I was growing up, I never got told about HIV in school, nobody ever mentioned it when we were down the pub.
“This bus is almost forcing people to talk, to look at it, to read the words and therefore maybe triggering them to have a conversation with their friends and family.
“I realised this is the space where somebody needs to speak up, to create some kind of campaign, some kind of movement, one we can run alongside the science and stop all these people losing their lives purely because of stigma or a myth created in the 80s.”
Former full-back Thomas, 48, says he has been subject to a torrent of abuse since facing allegations that he hid his HIV status from his ex-partner.
He believes the abuse has helped to illustrate the misconceptions around HIV and given him a greater appreciation for the ongoing stigma surrounding the virus, which Thomas announced he had tested positive for in 2019.
“What I’ve found in society is that people are accepting as long as it doesn’t involve them, as long as it doesn’t land on their doorstep,” he said.
“The minute it lands on their doorstep, then the real discrimination comes out.
“I took comfort in being around great, empathetic and compassionate people in this community, but I suppose it would be very easy for me to say, ‘yeah, I can just be in this lovely environment and be comfortable, therefore my life is quite easy.’
“But being comfortable is potentially making somebody else’s life uncomfortable. I wanted to go back into it to make sure that somebody else doesn’t have to go through it.”
The next stop for the former British and Irish Lion on the Myth Bus Tour is Twickenham Stoop as Harlequins entertain London Irish in the Premiership on the same day that Scotland begin their Autumn Nations campaign against Australia.
Finn Russell has been left out of Gregor Townsend’s squad but Thomas believes there is still time for a reconciliation between the pair ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
“I feel like in the past when they’ve dropped Finn Russell he hasn’t responded in a very mature way,” said Thomas.
“But you can’t doubt his individual ability.
“When you look at the World Cup 12 months down the line, you probably think that a good team with a good team ethic and built around Finn Russell, is a capable, dangerous team.
“I’m sure the door isn’t closed for him and that he’ll have opportunities in the next 12 months to show how much he’s learned from this.”
Tackle HIV, a campaign led by Gareth Thomas in partnership with ViiV Healthcare and the Terrence Higgins Trust, aims to tackle the stigma and misunderstanding around HIV. Visit www.tacklehiv.org and follow @tacklehiv