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Nine in 10 gay and bisexual men living with HIV are on treatment and cannot transmit the virus

Men living in Ireland are more likely to take drugs than their European counterparts, according to a new survey.
Oct 3rd 2019, 9:31 AM 24,081 60

Updated Oct 3rd 2019, 2:10 PM

NINE IN 10 gay and bisexual men living with HIV in Ireland are receiving treatment and virtually all of them have a undetectable viral load – meaning the virus can’t be transmitted.

More than 2,000 gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men (MSM) responded to an online survey about their sexual health and wellbeing, which was part of a wider European study.

The Irish study found that 7% of respondents were living with HIV, and of these the vast majority were engaged were on treatment (94%) and had an undetectable viral load (97%).

Dr Fiona Lyons of the GUIDE Clinic at St James’s Hospital in Dublin, said the figures are “very welcome” as they show that “the vast majority of men who reported that they are living with HIV are on effective treatment”.

“In Ireland, it is recommended that everyone diagnosed with HIV starts treatment as soon as possible. Effective and timely HIV treatment keeps people with HIV healthy and prevents transmission to other.”

Mick Quinlan, of the Gay Health Network, added: “The U=U (undetectable equals unsubmittable) message is becoming more prevalent and MSM living with HIV can feel confident that if they have an undetectable viral load and are having their HIV monitored, they will not pass HIV on to their sexual partner.”

He noted that, despite this, just over 40% of all respondents in the study “were not aware of this important information”.

“This highlights the need for targeted health promotion messaging; to arrange for people who have been diagnosed with HIV to take-up treatment as soon as possible, and for MSM to test for HIV and to have regular testing if at risk of acquiring HIV,” Quinlan said.

HIV testing and PrEP

Dr Derval Igoe, of the HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre and the Irish study’s principal investigator, said the proportion of men testing for HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) has been increasing in recent years, “which is very welcome”.

“However, 23% of MSM overall have never tested for HIV, rising to 47% in young men between 17 and 24 years of age.

“A sustained focus on reducing HIV stigma, on highlighting the benefits to the individual and the population in knowing your HIV status and on expanding options and opportunities for testing are all required,” Igoe said.

2083 Source: EMIS 2017 Ireland

Launching the survey report in Dublin this morning, Minister of State Catherine Byrne said the findings “show where more work is needed, but there is also good news”.

“The report found that there is a higher than average usage and awareness of PrEP (medication taken by people to reduce the chance of getting HIV) in Ireland compared to the European average,” Byrne said.

She added that the PrEP prevention programme is on track to be introduced in Ireland in the coming weeks, stating: “Considerable work is underway in order to introduce the PrEP programme this autumn, further details of the programme will be available shortly.”

“As we come to Budget week … cost-saving is so important for us all but cost-saving isn’t the only thing that’s important.

“It’s about making sure that we have programmes in place and that we fund them properly and that we can identify that that funding is going to do what it says, to change people’s lives,” Byrne said.

Alcohol and drug use

The study also reports findings on the prevalence of alcohol and drug use among the community.

Almost three in 10 men who took part (29%) were found to have possible alcohol dependency, compared to 18% in the European study. Four in 10 (41%) used at least one illicit drug in the last 12 months.

The most commonly used drugs were cannabis (34%), cocaine (20%) and ecstasy pills (19%). The same drugs were most commonly reported in the overall European report, however, the use of these drugs was lower compared to Ireland; cannabis (24%), cocaine (10%) and ecstasy pills (8%).

2083 Source: EMIS 2017 Ireland

The prevalence of chemsex, using drugs to make sex more intense or last longer, among MSM was higher in Ireland (20%) compared to the overall European prevalence (15%). Additionally, 72% of men who engaged in chemsex had done so with more than one partner – this was also higher than the overall European proportion (66%).

Noel Sutton of the Gay Health Network said the use of chemsex drugs such as GHB/G is a “huge problem” and “would certainly be an issue for our community and something that we do have to address”.

We see the needs of our community, we meet the needs of our community and we challenge them head on, rather than waiting until it becomes a ciris, we alway try to be proc in out work, rather than reactive.

Sutton noted that many people overdose on G because they are not aware of how potent it can be. As previously reported by TheJournal.ie, the number of G overdoses and referrals to Ireland’s only G-detox clinic, have jumped in recent years.

Anxiety and depression

Quinlan said the study’s findings relating to the prevalence of anxiety and depression and experience of homophobic verbal assaults or attacks are concerning.

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One in four (25%) respondents had some indication of anxiety, while one in five (21%) had some indication of depression.

“These findings emphasise that further work is needed to develop specific health and wellbeing messaging and interventions for the community,” Quinlan said, adding that the Gay Health Network will continue to work in partnership with the HSE in this area.

One in five men surveyed had been physically assaulted because someone had known, or presumed, they were attracted to men, with 3% having been being assaulted in the last 12 months.

Seven in 10 men had been verbally insulted because someone had known, or presumed, they were attracted to men, and 28% of men had experience of this in the last 12 months.

The Irish report was led by the HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre in partnership with the Gay Health Network, and was supported by the HSE Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme.

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Órla Ryan

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