RCP500 Joint Lectures: interview with Professor Colm O'Mahony

Professor Colm O’Mahony discusses his upcoming lecture AIDS – past, present and future, which is part of the RCP500 joint lecture series with Liverpool Medical Institution (LMI).

What has motivated you to choose the specific subject matter of AIDS for your lecture and what areas will you be discussing?

Professor Colm O’Mahony: I work full-time in the NHS managing STDs and HIV. I am amazed at the transformation we have achieved in turning HIV infection from a death sentence to a condition that can be managed by a single tablet a day, restoring the individual to a normal life span and preventing onward transmission.

I’ll talk about the early media disasters and the stigma associated with AIDS. I’ll explore where the ‘4 H Club’ came from, why it was called HTLV111 initially, uncover research fraud and clearly show how initial infections from chimpanzees to humans were spread by ill-advised vaccination campaigns in Africa.

What is your relationship with HIV/AIDS? How did you get involved with its study?

I became interested in STDs and AIDS in 1984 and saw my first case of Kaposi’s sarcoma in 1984 in Dublin. I came to Liverpool to study ‘venereology’ in 1986. Genitourinary medicine, as it was then called, had a very low profile and many services were working out of Portakabins. We needed to work better with the media and politicians so we formed BASHH (British Association for Sexual Health and HIV) and set up media committee, which did raise the profile.

The only way we will finish off this epidemic is by early diagnosis, immediate treatment, resulting in undetectable virus, which means the patient can’t pass it on, even with unprotected sex.

Professor Colm O’Mahony

How is it relevant to medicine today?

Early diagnosis is the key. There is a still a reluctance to test for HIV, as doctors feel the patient might feel ‘judged’. However the only way we will finish off this epidemic is by early diagnosis, immediate treatment, resulting in undetectable virus, which means the patient can’t pass it on, even with unprotected sex.

Who are you particularly interested in reaching out to as a result of this lecture?

Just because ‘rock stars’ are no longer dying in high-profile media glare does not mean AIDS has gone away. Alarmingly there are still about 6,000 new diagnoses every year in UK. The public need to know how easy it is to get infected and not be embarrassed about getting tested. Staff working in primary care need to do more tests.

What is your relationship with the RCP, and what does it mean to you that this year we are 500 years old?

As a fellow of the RCP, I love attending events at the superb college building. I have had enormous help from past and present RCP presidents, in both developing the specialty and preventing its further destruction by the Health and Social Care Act (of folly!) in removing sexual health and handing it to reluctant local authorities. RCP 500 years old – that’s gravitas.

Professor Colm O’Mahony is a consultant in genitourinary medicine at the Countess of Chester Hospital, dealing with sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS.

AIDS – past, present and future, the second lecture in a four-part series, takes place on 21 June at Liverpool’s LMI theatre. The event is open to members, fellows and the public.