December 1st is known globally as World AIDS Day. Founded in 1988, it is an opportunity for people around the world to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for those living with the condition and to remember this who are no longer with us.
The most recent estimate suggests there were 103,800 people living with HIV in the UK in 2018. Of these, around 7,500 are undiagnosed so do not know they are HIV positive. Globally, there are an estimated 36.7 million people who have the virus. Despite only being identified in 1984, more than 35 million people have died of HIV/AIDS, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history.
FACT ‘People on effective HIV treatment can’t pass it on’
Effective treatment for HIV suppresses the virus to such low levels that it can no longer harm you and you can’t pass it on.
So what is life like for those in our aviation industry who are living with HIV?
First we go back to the early 1980’s and one of the earliest patients of HIV – Gaëtan Dugas. Dugas was a flight attendant for Air Canada and died in Quebec City in March 1984 as a result of Kidney failure. A study published in The American Journal of Medicine led to Dugas being wrongly accused of bringing the virus to America and being referred to as ‘Patient Zero’. His subsequent portrayal in Randy Shilts’s book ‘And The Band Played On’ led to the male flight attendant being implicated in the social and political battles over AIDS/HIV in the ensuing years.
The 1980’s and 1990’s were a difficult time for anyone living with HIV/AIDS due to the sheer lack of understanding of the virus. Some airlines decided to ground crew who had been diagnosed and in one case, a crew member who they merely suspected. Passengers and even fellow cabin crew, became wary of travelling and working in the confined spaces onboard aircraft with those who could be unwell; an attitude brought on by fear and poor education.
In the UK, Dan Air later admitted that they too had stopped hiring male flight attendants in late 1985. This was due, they stated, to the fact that “A large proportion of men who are attracted to cabin staff are homosexual” and “as cabin staff are sexually permissive”, there would be a much greater risk of their cabin crew contracting HIV and passing it on to coworkers and fellow passengers. Their decision was over-ruled by the equal opportunities commission in October 1986 and once again men were subsequently hired by the airline.
FACT ‘HIV cannot be passed on through day-to-day contact.
HIV can’t be passed on through things like touching, kissing, sharing cutlery or glasses.
With time, came research and with research came a greater understanding of the illness. Slowly attitudes changed and once again male flight attendants were becoming accepted by the travelling public and their colleagues. One airline in particular was keen to become the USA’s first ‘Gay-friendly’ carrier, after becoming embroiled in a homophobic incident a few years earlier. The American Airlines flight crew had requested new pillows and blankets during a layover at Dallas, on a flight from Washington to California, after a number of gay passengers had been onboard the internal flight. The message, sent by the pilots, eventually leaked to the press causing an uproar among the gay community. Fearing a backlash, and as so many gay people were known to work for the company, American went on to educate its employees on gay rights and HIV/AIDS and become the first US airline to commit to nondiscrimination of its staff and passengers.
In 2017 a UK based pilot Anthony (not his real name), was told by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) that he would not be able to take up a place on a pilot training scheme due to his HIV positive status. The CAA initially said the problem stemmed from European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulations which state that pilots with certain medical conditions – including being HIV positive, organ transplantation or having type 1 diabetes – are only allowed to fly with a co-pilot.
However, after a review of the rules, the CAA said it was satisfied this should not prevent an HIV positive person obtaining a class 1 medical certificate to begin training for “multi-pilot operations” subject to them passing the class 1 medical assessment. This change meant that anyone with HIV would now be able to apply and train to become an airline pilot.
Anthony went on to pass all the assessments at easyJet, gain a place on their training programme and is now a fully qualified easyJet pilot. But it is only because Anthony came forward with his story that the CAA took a more sensible and realistic approach and his battle will allow others to follow their dream.
FACT ‘HIV can affect anyone’
Some groups of people are affected by HIV more than others, but it can be passed on to anyone.
Ex-flight attendant Tareq Nassri told his HIV story while working for AirAsiaX. Following his diagnosis Nassri was happy to learn that his employer was very supportive and was told that he could continue his career with the airline. But he soon realised that the support from his management did not extend across his co-workers. “During an annual class for first aid, an instructor told us we should always use a mouth cover when doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in case the person has AIDS,” he said. “The reactions from the other flight attendants were ‘eww, yuck’ and such.” Not all of his colleagues knew of his condition, but the thought that they could be disgusted by it “made me go into a cave”, he said. Nassri later decided to resign from a career that he loved so much, all because of some narrow minded and ill-educated colleagues.
Wade Schaerer a 26-year-old flight attendant found out he was HIV positive in March 2017. Schaerer worked for a domestic South African Airline and his decision to disclose his HIV positive status to the aviation authority saw him grounded by the South African CAA for four months. He lost income as a result, was subjected to medical tests and psychological assessments that he later described as ‘demeaning and degrading’. It’s also left him with hefty medical bills. But Scharerer fought for his right to take to the skies again, explaining that his Antiretroviral (ARV) Treatment was causing no side effects and he was fit to fly. His airline supported him throughout the battle.
Today the world is thankfully changing in regards to the perceptions of those living with HIV. Airlines and aviation regulatory bodies have updated their policies meaning HIV cannot stop someone from becoming crew or flight deck.
FACT ‘People living with HIV can live long and healthy lives’
There isn’t a cure (yet) for HIV but there is excellent treatment. If you are diagnosed in good time and take your medication you can have as long and healthy a life as anyone else.
HIV is no longer a death sentence. Those on effective treatment can live and long and healthy life and most importantly they CANNOT pass on the virus.
Times are changing, attitudes are changing and hopefully one day HIV will be consigned to the history books.
If you have any worries or concerns about HIV then please speak to someone. More information, help and advice can be found at the incredible Terence Higgins Trust.
© confessionsofatrolleydolly.com by Dan Air.