NEWSMAKER: Faced with prejudice - Nick Partridge, Chief executive, Terrence Higgins Trust

CLAIRE SAMES

Nick Partridge has handled some difficult situations in his 17 years at the Terrence Higgins Trust. He has had to deal with everything from "cowardly

answerphone messages saying "all faggots deserve to die

to arson threats and the office windows being smashed.

"However much we wish this was a world without prejudice, there is still a lot of hatred against gay men and African immigrants with the virus in this country,

says the Aids organisation's chief executive. "We're more vulnerable than other charities to a hostile public. And there's always the added risk of attacks from the tabloid press."

It is 20 years since Terrence Higgins died of Aids and 20 years since the disease was first seen to be occurring in this country. "Nature threw in a disease that killed people very young, and which was involved in the most intimate part of their lives. No-one knew for the first three years what caused Aids. We had a new killer disease on our hands - it was a shock to society. It touched many taboos: homosexuality, injecting drug use and dying young,

he says.

Although the early hysteria about HIV and Aids has died down somewhat, a cure has still not been found and prevention remains crucial. As well as focusing on the prevention of HIV in the gay community, the charity is working to raise awareness and develop its services among African communities in the UK.

It was with prevention in mind that the Aids charity joined forces with 11 other organisations, the latest being the London-based Healthy Gay Living Centre, which has a holistic approach towards promoting sexual health in the gay community. Under the merger, Terrence Higgins plans to use the Healthy Gay Living model to further develop a range of services for the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered community. "We're constantly creating a new organisation and re-organising ourselves in the face of a rapidly changing need,

says Partridge. "It's a long-term as opposed to a short-term approach."

The largest of Terrence Higgins' mergers took place in October 2000 when it joined with the London Lighthouse organisation. It brought together Terrence Higgins' lobbying power with Lighthouse's palliative, hospice and respite care services, and created an organisation powerful enough to give a real voice to people with HIV in the wider world.

According to Partridge, the most complex merger was with the HIV Alliance, a network of regional groups across the UK, which involved negotiations with five boards of trustees and a lot of travelling. "It was a very symbolic merger in the HIV and voluntary sector,

says Partridge. Before the tie-up Terrence Higgins was seen as "too London-based", he says.

Another contributing factor in joining together with other organisations was the arrival in 1996 of combination drug therapy, otherwise known as HAART - Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy, which had a remarkable effect on the health of many people living with HIV. Since the drugs' wide-spread introduction in the UK, the number of Aids-related deaths has dropped by 70 per cent.

In response to the arrival of the new treatments, the trust had to shift its emphasis from supporting dying people to helping those living long term with HIV. After the arrival of combination therapy, many HIV organisations found their statutory funding coming under increased pressure - the treatments are not cheap and the average annual costs for one patient is between £7,500 and £10,000. "Money had to be re-directed into paying for the drugs and the easiest thing to cut was often the funding given to voluntary organisations,

he says.

However, Partridge is adamant it did not undertake any of the mergers because of financial reasons. "All mergers have been driven by the need to develop a whole new range of services relevant to the lives of people living with HIV today,

says Partridge. "We have built a consistent national voice and have also achieved remarkable savings in the way we deliver our services."

The charity currently has an annual income of just over £9 million, of which £6 million comes from statutory funders, the rest from voluntary donations. Partridge intends to increase the amount it receives through fundraising by 10 per cent year on year, something he believes will be "a substantial challenge".

When Partridge joined Terrence Higgins many people working or volunteering for the trust died from Aids-related illnesses and, at one point, he attended a funeral every week.

Today, Terrence Higgins Trust employs more than 200 staff and has approximately 800 volunteers across England and Wales, who fulfil a variety of functions from staffing the helpline to providing mentor and peer support to people living with HIV.

According to Partridge, there is a growing diversity of people affected by the virus, including children and heterosexuals. There are currently 34,000 people living with the virus in the UK, a third of whom don't know they are infected, says Partridge.

"HIV is still seen differently to cancers and other medical conditions.

There's still a belief that it's your own fault, which is very rare in health,

he says.

Away from the workplace, Partridge has a passion for cooking, especially Italian cuisine. And like his cooking, he is slowly but surely providing a service organisation with all the right ingredients. "All those who've merged with us have wanted to create an organisation that's sustainable, able to take the knocks, survive controversy and become a real powerhouse."

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