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'It's worrying': Over 200 people diagnosed with HIV so far this year

Some 500 people were diagnosed with the condition last year, and this figure is expected to be higher in 2018.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/cawee

MORE THAN 200 people in Ireland have been diagnosed with HIV in the first five months of this year.

According to provisional data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), there were 212 new HIV diagnoses from January to May 2018.

A total of 504 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in 2017, on a par with the 503 new HIV diagnoses in 2016. In Ireland, on average, 10 people per week are diagnosed with the condition.

The number of HIV diagnoses in Ireland has increased by 35% since 2011. A notable jump in the figures became apparent in 2013 and 2014.

Prior to this there had been a consistent level of about 300-350 HIV diagnoses a year. There were 485 in 2015 and 508 in 2016.

Official figures are likely to understate the number of people living with HIV as, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), 15% of people living with HIV in western Europe are undiagnosed.

In a statement, HIV Ireland described the provisional figures for 2018 as “worrying”, noting that HIV diagnoses this year are beginning to surpass those of 2017.

HIV is found in:

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Vaginal fluid
  • Breast milk
  • Rectal secretions

It can be transmitted through:

  • Unprotected sex – vaginal, anal and oral
  • Blood-to-blood contact (such as through using contaminated needles or via blood transfusions in countries where blood isn’t screened)
  • Mother-to-baby contact – during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding

People who are diagnosed with HIV can receive antiretroviral therapy and live healthy lives, with the condition often becoming undetectable.

A recent audit of HIV services found that of the 5,317 individuals that attended a HIV service in 2017, 98.3% were receiving treatment.

Irish AIDS Day 

To mark Irish AIDS Day, which is happening today, HIV Ireland has called on the government to increase resources for free community-based HIV testing.

Executive Director Niall Mulligan said the charity provided free HIV testing to 1,089 people across six different community sites last year.

“Unfortunately, we had to turn away a further 384 people who presented for testing because we didn’t have the resources to cope. It is crucial that we ensure access to free HIV testing is widely available across Ireland,” Mulligan said.

We know regular HIV testing means earlier diagnosis and earlier access to effective treatment. We also know that effective HIV treatment reduces the virus in the body to undetectable levels, meaning that HIV cannot be passed on to someone else.

Diagnoses 

Of the new diagnoses in 2016, just over half (51%) were among men who have sex with men (MSM). According to the HPSC, this was the largest number of diagnoses ever reported in MSM, who remain the group most affected by HIV in this country.

The report also notes that 28% of diagnoses in 2016 were among heterosexuals, with people born in sub-Saharan Africa accounting for 64% of heterosexual cases. There were 21 diagnoses among people who inject drugs – a decrease from the numbers in 2014 and 2015 when there was an outbreak of HIV in Dublin among homeless drug users.

A spokesperson for the HSE told us the organisation has identified two gaps in its “national continuum of HIV care”, adding that “work is ongoing to address these”.

It was found that an estimated 12.9% of people living with HIV in Ireland have not yet being diagnosed and this is being addressed by improving awareness and access to HIV testing.

“To address this, the HSE Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme is providing funding to HIV Ireland for the community-based HIV testing initiative KnowNow, which is currently being implemented in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and most recently Galway, to improve access to HIV testing for those most at risk of HIV such as men who have sex with men.

“This community-based HIV testing initiative has been successful in reaching people who have not previously tested for HIV. Work is currently underway to improve HIV testing in other populations at risk of HIV, such as migrants, and adapt the community-based HIV testing model for this population.”

‘Enormous progress’

Speaking about World AIDS Day 2017, Minister of State for Health Promotion Catherine Byrne said: “We know that enormous progress has been made in the treatment of people infected with HIV.

Earlier testing and treatment mean that life expectancy is similar to that of the general population, thus bringing it into the realm of chronic diseases.

“Such therapies aside, however, the key challenge is to prevent the disease from occurring in the first place. HIV-AIDS is, after all, a life-changing disease. We must work together to strengthen the prevention arm of our national sexual health strategy in this context.”

Since December a generic version of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), a once-daily medication that can significantly reduce the risk of infection among HIV-negative people at high risk, has been available in Ireland.

Teva Pharmaceuticals’ generic medication is about 70% cheaper than its branded equivalent, however it still costs around €100 a month.

HIV Ireland is hosting its inaugural Red Ball at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin tomorrow. More information about the fundraiser as well as HIV testing and safer sex can be read on the charity’s website. More information about HIV can also be read on the HSE’s website

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Órla Ryan

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