The TESTIMONY of a visionary Edinburgh GP and addiction professor – who worked at the vanguard of HIV prevention in Scotland – will be included in a British Library archive to be launched this week.

The AIDS Era – an oral history of UK health workers, consists of an audio archive of 61 stories from HIV health workers during in the 1980s and 1990s and includes the contribution of Dr Roy Robertson, who worked as a young doctor in Edinburgh, once dubbed the AIDS capital of Europe.

The Heritage Lottery funded project aims to tell the story of the dramatic impact the crisis had on healthcare workers and services at a time where patients – often young, acutely unwell and frightened – were being admitted to hospital with symptoms that even the most experienced clinicians could not diagnose. A test for HIV was not introduced until 1985.

Robertson, who worked for the West Granton Medical Practice (now the Muirhouse Medical Practice), said that he well remembered the uncertainty of that time. But while many of the earliest cases of HIV in England affected gay men, in Edinburgh it was injecting drug users who bore the brunt of the crisis.

He told the Sunday National: “Before we got the test it was about drug overdoses – young people were dying, they were being left out on landings and stairwells. And there was very little political momentum to do anything about that until HIV came along. So the very early years for us were really very dramatic because we were dealing with a clinical emergency and grappling with that.”

He and fellow doctors at the practice in the area made infamous by Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting were seeing hundreds of drug users. They did not realise that their patients were affected at first but they were aware of US research about HIV and raised the issues with authorities. It was only later they realised they were in the eye of the storm.

“We looked back at samples we had stored in the lab and tested them and found that some had been infected since 1982,” he said. “We had also had a couple of strange deaths – a couple of overwhelming pneumonias for example. But we know the incubation period is five years minimum so these people were not yet ill.”

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Even then, little was known about the prognosis. He added: “One of the first experts I spoke to said it would probably be a bit like Hepatitis, some of these people will get ill and die but most of them will probably get better.

“The full horror and enormity of it didn’t really emerge at the beginning. When we knew more in 1986 or 1987 everyone got extremely alarmed – communities, the police, the public health people, the media. And that tombstone campaign got going which alarmed everyone, as it was meant to.

“But there was still this feeling that this was confined to a bunch of drug users, who have chosen a particular style of life, and really what do you expect but for them to be coming to grief. So there wasn’t a huge weight of sympathy for our patients. It was very difficult to get serious interest from mainstream services.”

The chief medical officer did take an interest, and the Scottish Office commissioned a report from a committee chaired by Brian McClelland which Robertson sat on. In 1986, it recommended decisively that the Government should open needle exchanges, prescribe methadone, provide treatment and support.

“It took time to get the politicians to agree,” added Robertson. Meanwhile he provided the best care he could, whether legally sanctioned or not, aware that lives were at stake. In Edinburgh infection rate was nearly seven times the national average and Dundee was another hotspot – before antivirals people got ill and died.

He remembers a major conference at which he was challenged on his practice. “Someone said: ‘You’ve been giving people needles and syringes and do you know it’s against the law?’ And I said: ‘Well, yes, but this is an emergency.’ I hadn’t seen I was sitting next to the Lord Advocate and they asked him what he thought of this. He said: ‘Well, of course, he’s guilty, but I can completely understand.’” By 1987 a needle exchange was set-up in the city.

He claims it’s important that we remember that time. Now Glasgow is facing an HIV epidemic with more than 100 new cases identified over the past few years. Modern drug treatment regimens mean that HIV positive people have a normal life expectancy and within months the viral load can reach zero meaning it cannot be transmitted. But as it largely affects drug users with often chaotic life style the situation complicated. And Robertson claims that the structural stigma faced by drug users that he saw back in the eighties is still found today. Compare the treatment of drug users to diabetics, he suggests. “For diabetics there are clinics are every hospital and they monitor absolutely everything – they measure their cholesterol, do their bloods, check their rental function, tinker with their insulin and that’s the level of level of care we need for people on a dangerous drug like methadone.

“Instead we get people to stand in a queue outside a chemist in Possilpark in the pouring rain to get their methadone. That’s not giving out proper treatment. They should be monitored, they should be supported in an environment that’s nice, that’s respectful, they should be getting psychological treatment and social work support.”

He hopes the archive helps people learn lessons from the past. “You do remember patients and I think that’s always with you.

“You do look back and think I wish I’d shouted louder. And I still feel it’s hard to get people to listen. Politicians think it’s too big and too complex. But really, it’s not.”