Added on 13-Jul-2008
WHEN rumours that a new disease was killing gay men in America first surfaced in the early 1980s, Nick Partridge – now chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust – was working in Amsterdam.“I was fearful and horrified by the prospect of something that was completely unknown, but was killing people very quickly,” he said. These early intimations spurred him to return to London, where he began working with the newly founded trust, named after the first known British victim.
Twenty-five years later, Terrence Higgins is Europe’s largest HIV and Aids charity and works in a very different landscape. Aids has killed 25m people around the world and there are 2.5m new cases of HIV each year. But in developed countries HIV is now largely a chronic condition controlled by powerful antiretroviral drugs.
Partridge, 52, who earns £85,000 a year, has been chief executive since 1991. Terrence Higgins is now part of Britain’s health establishment, and Partridge divides his time between the trust and working as deputy chairman of the UK Clinical Research Collaboration, as a member of the Healthcare Commission and chairing Involve, which promotes public involvement in public health, NHS and social-care research. Meetings in London and Manchester with these organisations form key parts of his week.
Partridge said he once believed the trust would disappear when a cure and vaccine for Aids were found. “But research on this has stalled. I don’t now believe we will see either in our lifetime.”
The trust’s work has changed after two watershed dates. In 1991, Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury died from Aids. A million pounds in royalties from the rereleased Bohemian Rhapsody, donated to the trust, gave it financial security. More important, Mercury’s death – and the Princess of Wales’s involvement in Aids issues – broadened public understanding.
Partridge said that by then he was close to emotional burn-out and would have quit had it not been for the development of effective antiretroviral drug treatments in 1996. “The number of people dying dropped by over 70% in just 18 months. That dawning realisation that people were going to live and not die was absolutely fabulous.”
However, it also meant the trust completely rethinking its purpose. “Our services now reflect a very different relationship. They are tailored around moments of crisis – such as the initial diagnosis or going on to treatment.”
A new challenge is sustaining awareness. A third of people with HIV in Britain don’t know they have the infection.