Did you know you can listen to live radio from any city anywhere anytime as long as you are connected to the internet?
radio.garden is a website I am starting to obsess over, I listen to songs from places like Spain, Japan, and Texas all day while chilling in my office in Mumbai. What a find!
b. Zomato has made a limit to review only 10 places a month. Too less I feel, what do you think? It does avoid spammers now, but I eat out a lot and enjoyed reviewing!
c. The crazy ending to this year’s Oscars! It was unbelievable, I did not believe when they first said Moonlight won but damn it did. Must have been an awkward night for the La La Land crew.
ABC via Giphy
Jimmy Kimmel did a good job as a host, It was a respite from the last two years’ botched up hosting.
During December 2016, One of the world’s most esteemed HIV doctors, Professor Sheena McCormack – whose life’s work as an epidemiologist has been to track and fight the virus – picked up the phone to call a former sex worker to deliver a message that would make headline news: In the space of 12 months, the number of gay men in London being diagnosed with HIV had dropped by 40%. Across England, it was down by a third, and this was due to him.
No British doctor has been able to report a fall this steep in more than 35 years of the virus. It is the kind of figure that in medical circles is so large as to look jarring, even false; and yet it was true.
Behind this story lay a series of secret meetings and a network of people with one man at the center who, unknown to the public, helped change medical history. His name is Greg Owen. He was the man McCormack phoned.
“She said, ‘Don’t look at the percentage; I want you to look at this another way. There are thousands of people who didn’t become HIV-positive this year because of you.’”
Owen started to cry. And after that call, he says, he used to cry every day.
“I knew I was doing something of substance, but I didn’t know what. It feels really good, but it’s really overwhelming because how many people in my position get to do what I did?”
The man McCormack credited with this unprecedented reduction in HIV transmissions was not a fellow doctor, nor the head of a charity, nor even a politician. Owen is unemployed, a former sex worker, and homeless.
What he managed to pull off – and why – is so outlandish it warrants comparisons with Ron Woodroof, the AIDS patient depicted by Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, who in 1980s America smuggled in unauthorized HIV drugs for desperate fellow sufferers.
The difference is that Woodroof’s was an outrageous story that ended in tragedy. Owen’s is a tragic story that ends in outrageous success.
In the summer of 2015, Owen was 35 and working part-time as a barman and club promoter. One of six children, from a working-class Catholic family in Northern Ireland, he had come to England to train as an actor before finding his way into London’s bacchanalian nightlife. That summer, he was trying to make a difficult decision.
He had heard about a new drug regime that was being used to prevent HIV. The medication’s brand name is Truvada, and the regime – which involves taking this antiretroviral pill every day – is dubbed PrEP: pre-exposure prophylaxis. Owen, fearful of contracting the virus amid this unleashed world, couldn’t decide whether to start taking the drug, let alone how to obtain it.
PrEP was not available on the NHS and a private prescription would cost about £500 per month. But a major NHS study was underway to ascertain how effective the drug was, and who should be given it. The study, called PROUD, was being run by Professor McCormack.
“I heard about the PROUD study at a sex party,” says Owen,
The problem was that Owen was too late to enroll in the study.
On 11 August 2015, Owen posted on Facebook to let his friends know that he planned to begin taking PrEP. A friend, who was HIV-positive and had been prescribed the drug as part of his treatment before switching medication, offered him some spare pills. Owen’s plan was to start taking them and blog about his experiences – a “blow by blow” account, he says, laughing. Owen laughs a lot when he isn’t raging, frowning, or grinning with delight – often with a frenzy of gestures. He is rarely still.
The day after the Facebook post, he went to a sexual health clinic to double-check he was HIV-negative before taking the pills. Moments later, the nurse gave him the result of the rapid pin-prick blood test: It was positive. He had missed his chance to prevent it.
“I felt sick,” says Owen. “I said, ‘I need to have a cigarette.’ I was in shock.”
The following evening, aware that his friends on Facebook would soon be asking how he was getting on with PrEP, and while working a shift in a gay bar, Owen posted an update on the site telling everyone he was HIV-positive.
That single act triggered a chain of events that would change everything.
“When I came out on my break two hours later, I had 375 likes, 175 comments, 50 shares. I was like, ‘Sweet Jesus,’” he says. “Then I opened my Messenger – streams of disclosures and supportive messages from people. I must have had 50 or 60 people in two hours saying, ‘I can’t believe you’ve done that, I’m HIV-positive as well, and I haven’t told anyone,’ or, ‘I have only told my family, and you’ve told 5,000 people.’”
But then the messages started changing. “People were like, ‘What is this PrEP thing and if you had it why wouldn’t you have become HIV-positive?’ It got to a point within a week where I would get 10 people a day asking me about PrEP – and that’s 10 people asking 10 questions each.”
Keen to get on with life and with his blog, Owen found the questions from acquaintances and strangers were proving a near-constant interruption. He told his friend Alex that something had to give. And it was then that he remembered something.
“I was like, ‘I’m sure I was at a meeting somewhere and heard you can import generic hepatitis C drugs for a tenth of the price,’” he says. This thought fused with the need to rid himself of the endless inquiries, or “these fucking bastards asking me about PrEP,” as he puts it.
He decided to set up a website with all the information he could find, thus allowing him to “walk away from PrEP.” He laughs at the irony. It would prove to do the opposite. The idea for the site wasn’t only to provide facts; it was also going to help readers buy cheap, non-branded versions of the drug – known as “generics” – from manufacturers overseas.
Owen just had to figure out how to do this. He knew someone who worked in a sexual health clinic,
“I said, ‘I’m aware we can maybe import something? Do you know anything about this?’ And he replied, ‘Yeeeeees. Come in tomorrow at 3 pm.’”
The next day they met in the clinic. Owen was told to keep everything confidential.
“This person said, ‘We have a handful of people who use our clinic, and they have been self-sourcing generics from this website, and we have been discreetly doing the monitoring – discreetly checking their blood periodically to check that there are active levels of the drug.’”
In one sentence, everything was possible. There was somewhere to buy the non-branded versions of the drug – and at around £50 a month, a tenth of the price of a private prescription. And there was, potentially, a way to ensure the drugs were working properly. At the time, because PrEP was not available on the NHS, neither – officially – were the urine and blood tests needed to check that the drugs were not adversely affecting kidney function (which some antiretrovirals can do) and were not fake.
The man in the clinic, says Owen, then made the possible workable: He showed Owen which websites were supplying this handful of patients with the generics, and which ones they knew – because they had run the tests – were supplying the effective pills.
“I said, ‘So this is legit – legit but dodgy. Can we do this?’ And he said, ‘Not only can you do this; you must do this. We’ve been waiting for someone to do this. We’re diagnosing people every day and do you know how heart-breaking it is to know that PrEP would stop it and not be able to do something?’”
And that, says Owen, was all the motivation he needed. He and his friend Alex spent a few weeks building the website, gathering as much information as they could, and including a simple click-to-buy button that linked through to the pharmacies in Asia that sold and shipped the generics. They called it IWantPrEPNow.co.uk.
“At the time I was shitting myself,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘It’s not like I’m selling Viagra that might work or might not work – the worst that happens is you don’t get a boner – I’m selling drugs where people might rely on it for their HIV protection.”
But by then, September 2015, the results of the PROUD study were in: PrEP was enormously effective – comparable to condoms – but unlike condoms, this pill is not reliant on people being able or willing to implement the precaution at the very moment when desire can overwhelm.
But something propelled him forward, muzzling the self-doubts: the person he loved who had a heart attack, coupled with the knowledge of his own HIV status. He tries to explain how this motivation manifested, in a mission to compensate for what had happened to the two of them.
“Clinicians were anxious about even discussing it [with patients],” says Owen. “And the GMC directed her to something that was already established and given as guidelines. It basically says it is your responsibility as a doctor to advocate for the best treatment for your patient, even if it’s not commissioned. In other words, the GMC gave the green light to initiate the conversation around PrEP.”
After this, increasing numbers of gay men started turning up to clinics saying they were buying generic PrEP online and asking for the urine and blood tests – known as therapeutic blood monitoring. And within weeks, more and more sexual health clinics started offering the service to cater to the demand. Thanks to Portman’s discussions with fellow doctors, the Mortimer Market Centre also brought Owen in to train medical staff about PrEP.
“I thought it was hilarious,” says Owen, laughing at what seemed like an absurdity. “Now I’m giving staff training to professors and doctors?” But he knew why they wanted him there. “The thing is, I speak with hundreds and thousands of PrEP users across the world all the time. I know what they need, I know what will encourage them, to be honest with clinicians.”
Meanwhile, he was working round the clock, often responding to inquiries on IWantPrEPNow through the night, and spreading the word about the service on Twitter and Facebook. In the first couple of months, the site had around 2,500 unique visitors. This may not seem a huge number, but with around 6,000 people in England being diagnosed with HIV per year it was significant – and it was soon going to rise.
A new and unexpected battle began in March 2016. After 18 months of discussions with the HIV sector, NHS England derailed the commissioning process – the path that leads to a drug being funded – for PrEP. Suddenly, all the doctors and charities who thought that it might soon become available to patients were left disappointed. And Owen, who thought he would need to keep the website going for only a few months until the NHS took over, now faced the prospect of this becoming his life for the foreseeable future.
The resulting publicity surrounding the decision, however, had an interesting effect: More and more people were becoming aware of the drug and, says Owen, seeking it out on IWantPrEPNow. Traffic began to double and triple. His social media presence swelled, fuelling further traffic and media traction: appearances on the BBC, more radio discussions, more press coverage. Greg Owen was becoming Mr. PrEP.
In response to NHS England’s decision, all the major HIV charities joined forces to fight it. A series of meetings ensued. Owen was the only activist invited to attend, as every HIV specialist knew that he was the main link to thousands of people wanting the drug. BuzzFeed News was the only media organization allowed in.
Meanwhile, on hook-up apps for gay and bisexual men such as Grindr and Scruff, increasing numbers of users started stating on their profile that they were on PrEP. This was also happening across Europe: Although most visitors to IWantPrEPNow were from Britain, many from a range of continental countries were buying PrEP through the site and having it shipped to them.
As the NHS stalled, an underground movement, facilitated by Owen, was in full swing.
“The whole experience was really weird,” he says. “On a personal level, I went from being seen as this trashy, slutty, whereby guy who was always hanging out of a club in Vauxhall to… all of a sudden I was seen as this ‘good gay’…this ‘community leader.’”
Its amazing how one step may lead to such a difference, such a giant change.