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Dublin: 15 °C Thursday 23 October, 2014

‘Once you say you’re HIV positive, you can’t take it back’

HIV in Ireland: screening, stigma and support

Irish Red Cross Youth Department volunteers at a Dublin AIDS Alliance event.
Irish Red Cross Youth Department volunteers at a Dublin AIDS Alliance event.
Image: Laura Gallagher/Facebook

SOME 344 PEOPLE were newly diagnosed with HIV in Ireland last year.

Globally, 30 per cent of people living with the virus are doing so without knowing it – that works out at approximately 1,800 people in Ireland.

Dr Erin Nugent, Community Support Coordinator at the Dublin AIDS Alliance, said the biggest issue surrounding HIV is the fact that people are passing it on unwittingly.

“If people don’t know [they are HIV positive] it can cause a lot of complications. People often think they’re not at risk because they have no symptoms.

People think ‘I’m not a man who has sex with another man, I’m not a sex worker, I’m not from a country where it’s endemic’ and remove themselves from the risk. There’s a continuum of risk and we try every avenue possible to make people aware of this.

Two years ago the Alliance launched a pilot HIV and STI screening programme. This free service was fully rolled out in 2013, testing 194 people: 110 men and 84 women.

Anyone who tests positive is given an appointment at St James’ Hospital.

Nugent said the Alliance’s promotional material particularly targets migrants who may be “unaware of issues and services around HIV and STIs”.

She said many immigrants are fearful that a positive HIV diagnosis could lead to their deportation. At least half of the people diagnosed in Ireland last year were born abroad.

The Alliance held 1,712 interventions in 2013 – covering areas such as counselling for those with HIV, training for health workers and distribution of welfare information.

Nugent said that about 200 people – those with HIV and their families – visit the group’s office in Parnell Square West every week.

Last year, the Alliance teamed up with the customers and owners of businesses on Moore St and Parnell St to help compile a booklet explaining what a person attending a screening centre would need to know.

As part of the the group’s ‘Just Carry One’ campaign, 62,317 free condoms and 54,292 lubricant sachets were distributed in 2013.

J0241960004 Friday 15th June 2012:

Dublin AIDS Alliance 'Just Carry One' campaign launch

Source: Facebook

In 1995, there were 3,361 STIs diagnosed in Ireland. This figure has steadily increased since then, peaking at 13,442 in 2011, before dropping to 12,719 in 2012.

Almost 7,000 people in Ireland have been diagnosed with HIV since the early 1980s.

The Alliance is primarily funded by the HSE and the North Inner City Drugs Task Force, receiving €358,867 and €71,000 respectively from the two organisations in 2013. It also raised €10,951 through fundraising and donations last year.

HIV in Ireland in 2013: The numbers

  • 344: newly diagnosed cases
  • 258: men diagnosed
  • 86: women diagnosed
  • 34: average age of new diagnosis
  • 3: mother-to-child transmissions
  • 38.1: percentage of diagnoses related to straight people
  • 46.2: percentage of diagnoses related to gay men
  • 5.2: percentage of diagnoses related to injecting drug users

Stigma

Nugent said that a huge level of stigma still surrounds HIV.

She acknowledged that breakthroughs in treatment mean the virus has rightly been labelled more “manageable” in recent years, but warned that this could lead to a lax in public awareness and concern.

However, she said it was undoubtedly a better situation than in the 1980s when public awareness campaigns “focused on fear” and “ads carving AIDS on a headstone with John Hurt’s voice in the background”.


“A lot of people are saying today that HIV is like any other illness, and in some ways that’s true. When diagnosed early it can be managed like other illnesses and people can still live a healthy life.

In terms of stigma, it’s not like other illnesses. When people find out they ask themselves ‘Who will I tell or what will I tell them?’ You wouldn’t do that if you had another disease. Once you say you’re HIV positive, you can’t take it back.

Nugent added that some people are very judgmental of those who have been positively diagnosed as they see HIV as “a moral issue, not a health issue”.

They ask ‘How’d you get it?’ That’s not something you’d ask someone with another illness.

Side effects of HIV medication can include an upset stomach, diarrhoea, headaches, and severe weight gain or loss.

Nugent said that a lot of confusion surrounds the transmission of HIV, with some people thinking a person can become infected through hugging someone who is HIV positive, or by washing in the same shower or sink.

She stressed the importance of early diagnoses, saying such cases are more easily treated.

If people are diagnosed late, they are less likely to respond to treatment and more likely to die.

The Alliance has teamed up with several organisations for various campaigns, including Positive Now, the Gay Health Network, the Irish Red Cross, the Ana Liffey Drug Project and a number of colleges.

As important as mental health

The Gay Men’s Health Service’s 2013 Annual Report was launched in Dublin at the 12th annual All-Ireland Gay Health Forum on Friday.

It showed that almost 6,000 gay men underwent HIV and STI testing at the organisation’s clinic last year. One in five received a diagnosis, with 33 men being diagnosed as HIV positive.

Tony Cooney is the Personal Development Facilitator at the GMHS and the director of Gay Switchboard Dublin, a support helpline for the LGBT community that is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Cooney said that the number of men using the GMHS’s clinic in 2013 increased by seven per cent. Two thirds of users were 39 years old or younger and 14 per cent lived outside of Dublin.

Man2Man - Man2Man's Photos | Facebook

Dr Shay Keating, Rory O'Neill and TD Jerry Buttimer at the launch of Man2Man's STI screening awareness campaign

Source: Facebook

The GMHS, which provides a number of services from its centre on Baggot St, has been working with the Dublin AIDS Alliance for 20 years. They both support Man2Man, a campaign to promote men’s sexual health that was founded by the GHN and the HSE.

“We’re all individual organisations but we work together to get a key message across. By working together we have more strength and can develop programmes much quicker,” Cooney explained.

He said that sexual health awareness should be promoted to the same extent as mental health, as they are “absolutely” of equal importance.

“Sexual health impacts on mental health and vice versa.”

Cooney acknowledged that people can be apprehensive about attending a screening clinic but said that once they do go, they will be “treated with respect”.

For more information on HIV and AIDS click here.

Related: More gay men are seeking STI testing and advice

Read: Undiagnosed HIV rates high in Dublin, widespread testing recommended

Read: Email and drop-in service to support sexual health in gay community

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