By Hugo Greenhalgh
LONDON, Sept 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Former rugby international Gareth Thomas's decision to come out as HIV-positive could transform the sports star into a role model for millions of people living with the virus, HIV/AIDS groups said on Monday.
Ash Kotak, who leads the AIDSMemoryUK Campaign to establish a national tribute to HIV/AIDS in Britain, said Thomas's reputation as a successful sportsman could provide a role model for the public to gain a greater understanding of the issue.
"It does a lot of good, as he's someone we feel very connected to as we've seen so much of him in the media as this great sportsman playing rugby, which is the archetypal manly sport," Kotak told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
On Saturday, 45-year-old Thomas, a former Wales captain, said in a video posted on Twitter that he had decided to go public in the face of possible blackmail threats.
"I'm Gareth Thomas and I want to share my secret with you. Why? Because it's mine to tell you, not the emails that make my life hell, threatening to tell you before I do, and because I believe in you and I trust you," he said.
Thomas's announcement garnered support from around the world, including Britain's Prince William, who said on Instagram that the move was as "courageous as ever".
"You have our support, Gareth," added the prince, second in line to the British throne.
His brother, Prince Harry, called the former rugby international "an absolute legend" for declaring his HIV status.
"In sharing your story of being HIV+, you are saving lives and shattering stigma, by showing you can be strong and resilient while living with HIV," he said on Instagram.
The princes' mother, Princess Diana, was frequently commended for raising awareness of the issue by meeting with HIV-positive patients in the 1980s at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Thomas told Britain's Sunday Mirror newspaper that he and Prince Harry planned to work together to battle HIV stigma.
The combination of the prince and a former international sports star would help fight discrimination against those living with the virus, HIV/AIDS activists said on Monday.
"It's incredible to see (the princes') support on social media for Gareth," said Ian Green, chief executive at leading British HIV/AIDS charity, the Terrence Higgins Trust.
Matthew Hodson, executive director of NAM, a British HIV/Aids information charity, said declaring an HIV status remained a "difficult decision" for many.
"It can often be met with hostility and fear and this can, in extreme circumstances, result in violence," Hodson said.
According to UNAIDS, almost 37 million people globally are living with HIV/Aids. An estimated 35 million have died of complications arising from Aids. (Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)