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How Prince Harry is following in Diana’s footsteps to fight HIV stigma

The Duke of Sussex has publicly supported retired rugby player Gareth Thomas

Danielle Stacey

The Duke of Sussex briefly put his 35th birthday plans on hold this weekend to share a message of support for Gareth Thomas, the retired Welsh rugby player, who was pushed to reveal he is HIV positive. In an emotional video to his 268,000 followers on Twitter, Gareth said that while he feels ''extremely vulnerable,'' he wants to ''educate and break the stigma'' around the subject of HIV. 

Prince Harry backed the former sportsman in a moving post on Instagram, writing: ''Gareth, you are an absolute legend! In sharing your story of being HIV+, you are saving lives and shattering stigma, by showing you can be strong and resilient while living with HIV. We should all be appalled by the way you were forced to speak your truth, it is yours and yours alone to share on your terms and I and millions stand with you.''

It’s the latest move by the royal to help break the taboo around the subject – echoing the work of his late mother Princess Diana. In the 1980s, little was known about HIV/AIDS and how it was transmitted, causing panic and fear among the public in the UK. In 1987, Diana became the first member of the royal family to have contact with AIDS victims. She famously sat and shook hands with an HIV sufferer upon opening a new AIDS ward at Middlesex Hospital. Diana didn’t wear gloves, sending the message that the virus couldn’t be spread by casual contact. 

Princess Diana shaking hands with an AIDS sufferer in 1987

She then became patron of the National AIDS Trust in 1991 and it was one of six patronages she kept after her divorce from Prince Charles in 1996. At the Children and AIDS Conference in 1991, during a speech, she said: "HIV does not make people dangerous to know. You can shake their hands and give them a hug. Heaven knows they need it. What's more, you can share their homes, their workplaces, and their playgrounds and toys.'' Since Diana’s death in 1997, her sons William and Harry have been continuing her legacy by working with various charitable initiatives close to their mother’s heart. 

READ: Prince Harry praises Gareth Thomas after rugby legend reveals he has HIV

In 2006, Harry and Prince Seeiso of Lesotho jointly founded Sentebale, a charity to support the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people affected by HIV and AIDS in Lesotho, Botswana and Malawi. During his gap year in 2004, Harry then 19, visited the small African nation and was moved by the plight of children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic. Sentebale means ‘forget-me-not’ in Sesotho (the language of Lesotho) which was also Diana's favourite flower.

Over the years, the Prince has taken part in initiatives and events to raise funds and awareness for his charity, including the polo cup in Rome in May and the Sentebale Audi Concert (headlined by Rita Ora) in June this year. In 2016, Harry also underwent a HIV test live on social media at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital, to encourage people to get tested and to remove the stigma around taking one. He took a second test just five months later, alongside singer Rihanna in Barbados, at an event to celebrate the country's independence.

Rihanna and Harry took a HIV test in Barbados in 2016

The Duke teamed up with long-time friend Sir Elton John in 2018 to launch the MenStar coalition, which aims to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. During his speech at the International Aids Conference, Harry said that while progress has been made, it is ''at risk from a dangerous complacency.'' He added: ''Too many around the world are still ignoring the damaging knock-on effect on education and other community services from not prioritising HIV prevention and treatment.''

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It’s a subject that Harry clearly feels strongly about and now as a husband and a father, it’s work that he and the Duchess of Sussex will keep as one of their core initiatives. Harry and Meghan marked World AIDS Day, when they carried out their first official public engagement together in Nottingham in December 2017, where they met representatives from the local Terrence Higgins Trust. The Prince has teamed up with the sexual health charity (founded after the death of Hansard reporter and DJ Terry Higgins in 1982) on a number of occasions through the years. 

Harry and Meghan visited Nottingham on World AIDS Day in 2017

When the couple got married in May 2018, instead of wedding gifts, they asked well-wishers to donate to seven chosen charities. Harry showed his support for the cause again, when he selected The Children’s HIV Association (CHIVA) to be one of the recipients. 

The Duke and Duchess are preparing for their royal tour of Africa next week and Harry will continue to show his support; a large focus of his engagements will be helping young people affected by HIV.  

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