Gareth Thomas hails ‘magnificent’ royal support as Prince Harry joins him in HIV campaign

Robert Jobson

Wales rugby legend Gareth Thomas praised The Duke of Sussex today for his courage in choosing to help break down the stigma of HIV/AIDS.

Mr Thomas, who recently revealed he had been keeping his HIV positive diagnosis a secret for years, told how important it is for Prince Harry to his “global platform” to help others suffering in silence.

The 45-year-old is the first major UK sportsman to reveal he has the virus and has spoken candidly about the importance of breaking down the stigma of the illness to normalise testing to save lives.

Prince Harry, whose mother the late Diana, Princess of Wales, was a pioneer in championing those with HIV/AIDS, has taken two public HIV tests in previous years and spoken out how people “should not be ashamed or embarrassed” about taking one, and instead should treat it in the same way as people protected themselves against viruses, such as flu.

Harry looks at former rugby player Gareth Thomas at the Twickenham Stoop (Reuters)

Mr Thomas said: “Prince Harry getting tested publically was an unbelievably brave thing for him to do because stigma isn’t just a word, stigma is this real thing that affects people in very negative ways.

“So for him to do something that is very stigmatised and there’s not much education about it is a very brave and bold thing to do.

“I think someone like Harry has, is a way bigger platform than any of us, and he can reach parts of the world where people are still very much living in shame, very much in a society that is non educated - but through him doing that and very much normalising a simple procedure that eradicates doubt and will eradicate new cases of HIV if people find out that they are positive and go on to medication straight away.

“Somebody like Harry doing something like that is a huge, a huge message that will help us as part of the commission.

“He doesn’t do it because it’s a duty, he does it because he cares about people who are struggling because they have a human right to be able to live their lives.”

Mr Thomas and the Duke met for the first time this morning at the Twickenham Stoop ground, home if Harlequins rugby union team.

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex (C) and former Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas (CR) hold shirts gifted by Harlequins rugby club (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The pair greeted each other with a huge warm embrace, with Mr Thomas revealing he had spoken to the Prince after Harry sent him a message of support following his revelations in a Sunday newspaper this September.

Harry has long been a supporter of HIV testing through his association with the HIV and sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust, which has commended the duke’s support in tackling HIV stigma and normalising testing.

Thomas has been announced as a commissioner on the first ever HIV Commission.

His new role will see him playing a key part in helping to end HIV transmission in England over the next decade.

The HIV Commission was set up by Terrence Higgins Trust and NAT (National Aids Trust) to develop independent recommendations towards ending all new HIV transmissions in England by 2030.

The commission hopes to hear from a wide variety of different viewpoints, including charities, public bodies, businesses, researchers, public health experts and those directly affected by HIV.

The number of HIV diagnoses in England have dropped to their lowest level since 2000.

This follows a period of rapid progression where those diagnosed are provided with immediate access to HIV treatment meaning they are more quickly virally suppressed and can’t pass on HIV to partners, as well as increased availability of HIV prevention pill PrEP.

National HIV Testing Week, which starts on 16 November, will focus on helping to bring HIV transmission and stigma to an end.

Mr Thomas said: “This is something that I am unbelievably honoured about, becoming an HIV commissioner with a group of people who plan to end zero new transmissions of HIV in England in the next 10 years and that’s the first country in the world to do that.

“So to even be here, saying those kinds of statements are really bold, really brave, but we need to be really bold and you need to put yourself out there.

“I feel over the last couple of months I now want to take the next step.

“I have a little platform, I don’t know how big it is but I know I have a platform and I understood why there are so many people living in fear ,living in shame, because I lived in fear and I lived in shame, but what I wanted to do is I wanted to educate myself about the facts about living with HIV, and the facts that I got tested early enough and went on medication early enough that I quickly became undetectable and that meant I could live a very normal life and that is the importance of spreading the message about normalising testing and giving anyone living with HIV that opportunity.”

Harry and Mr Thomas met amateur players and others living with HIV and spoke to them about the greater need to break down the stigma around the condition.

Speaking about Mr Thomas’ involvement with the Terrence Higgins Trust, Harry pointed at the rugby star and joked: “We’ve actually been looking for someone for ages to front our campaign. We wanted someone better looking but we’ll have to take what we can get.”

Laughing, the former Wales captain said: “We’ll I’ll take that, I suppose I’ll have to.”

Prince Harry replied: “But what you have done, which is so amazing, is you have completely changed it, broken down the stigma and that will help so many people.

“We need to completely normalise testing to prove to people it is nothing to be concerned about.”

Harlequins captain and former England star Chris Robshaw praised the pair saying he would welcome more education in the sport about testing and the condition.

After the trio watched a demonstration of how to do carry out a test at home with a mobile kit in 10 minutes, he said: “It’s so easy to do I think a lot of people will do it.”

Before a group photograph with the team squad, Robshaw presented a mini Harlequins jersey to Harry for his six month old son with ‘Archie’ on the back.

Mr Thomas was handed a slightly larger version with his nickname ‘Alfie’ on the back, a long standing joke on his “supposed resemblance” to the alien title character in the TV sitcom ALF.

The former British Lions captain, who revealed he was gay in 2009 and retired from rugby in 2011, added: “Today for me is a huge role because it’s like my next step forward announcing that I was living with HIV, I wanted to break stigma, I wanted to educate people, I didn’t just want to do it just for me.

“I kind of felt in a small way it did that a little bit. I could have easily gone home and sat and got on with my life with my husband and got on with everything else because I’m not open now.

“But that would have been really selfish of me and not really me to just sit down and do nothing and I felt that there is still more to fight about.

“And working alongside the Terrence Higgins trust and getting to know Prince Harry through my announcement and his support for me, then this kind of seemed like the next step, to keep educating people, keep breaking the stigma about getting people to get tested.”

Mr Thomas married his teenage sweetheart Jemma in 2002. They split up after he told her he was gay – and he went public about his sexuality 10 years ago. He was the first British rugby international to “come out”.

He received widespread support from all over the country including public messages on social media from Prince William and Prince Harry.

Mr Thomas said: “Going public with living with HIV has been very empowering and I want to help others to show them they don’t need to live in fear and live in shame, because you can still live with HIV and be healthy and live a normal live.

“The support from the royals has been magnificent. And it’s not just m for me, it’s to show that we accept people living with HIV and that carries an enormous weight.

“Harry having public tests for HIV is incredibly powerful, with his reach, a global reach, is something that will reach the corners of the globe and communities that are marginalised who need support from all of us.

“To be involved in something like this, an event surrounding HIV testing at a rugby club is something I could never have dreamed of 10 years ago. Now I’m joining the HIV commission as a commissioner with a lot of strong voices on the issue to aim to have zero HIV transmissions in Britain by 2030 which not only shows how far we have come, but how far we have to go and we can get there while still striving to break down the stigma of HIV for everyone.”

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