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'I'm most angry at myself': HIV positive people continue to suffer from stigma in Ireland

17% of people living in HIV say they have felt suicidal in the last year.

Man with a HIV express test.
Man with a HIV express test.
Image: Shutterstock/divasoft

ALMOST ONE IN five HIV positive people in Ireland say they have felt suicidal in the last year.

The HIV in Ireland survey 2017, which will launch this morning, has found that stigma continues to have a significant impact on people living with the condition in this country.

Being open about their diagnosis was a huge concern to HIV positive people in Ireland, the survey found, as 61% of respondents reported not disclosing their status to one or more people for fear of being judged or treated differently.

HIV diagnoses have increased by 35% since 2011 in Ireland. Along with the 512 new diagnoses in 2016, a total of 485 people were diagnosed in Ireland in 2015.

Shame and rejection

88% of people living with HIV agreed that some members of the general population believe living with the condition is shameful.

In the previous year, 61% of respondents feared being rejected in a personal relationship as a consequence of their HIV status, and 32% had experienced such rejection.

Meanwhile, 55% feared being outed as HIV positive by other people, and to a lesser extent, 17% of people fear violent attacks if they disclosed their diagnosis.

Furthermore, 54% of respondents were single compared to 38% in the general population.

The report included a number of testimonies from people living with HIV.

“It can leave you lonely and it is very hard to discuss with some people. I blame it for the fact that I’m single and worry about old age – an odd thing for someone my [young] age,” one person said.

“I am always wary of my status being found out, but the stigma, I believe, is worse. I think I am hardest on myself. I am most angry at myself at this late stage in life and I hate myself for it. I have attempted to overdose, and I spent a week in hospital, soon after diagnosis,” another said.

17% of people living with HIV say they have felt suicidal in the last year. This compares to the national average of 4%.

“This survey is of crucial importance in highlighting the need for policymakers and politicians to understand the impact that HIV-related stigma is having on people living with the condition,” Niall Mulligan, executive director of HIV Ireland, who commissioned the report, said.

“It’s time to open our eyes to the damage HIV-related stigma is having on people’s lives.”

HIV Ireland works to improve, through a range of support services, conditions for people living with HIV, AIDS and Hepatitis in Ireland.

Misinformed attitudes

The survey was undertaken to identify levels of knowledge and attitudes to HIV, within the whole population, as well as recording the experiences of people living with HIV.

Some 1,013 people responded to the general survey and 168 people responded to the survey specifically for people living with HIV.

Among the general population, the research found various degrees of knowledge about HIV.

One in five 18 to 24-year-olds incorrectly thought HIV can be passed from person to person through the sharing of a public toilet seat, compared to 10% of those over 24.

24% of people incorrectly believed that HIV can be transmitted through kissing, while 11% wrongly thought it could be transmitted through coughing or sneezing.

One in 10 people said they wouldn’t feel comfortable working with a colleague who was HIV positive.

“Negative or misinformed attitudes to HIV, and towards people living with HIV, can create obstacles for people getting tested. UNAIDS estimates that across Europe, 15% of people living with HIV aren’t aware of their condition,” Mulligan said.

It is crucial that we remove as many barriers as possible to people getting tested. Stigma is one of those barriers.

HIV protection in Ireland

The government has provided funding to the KnowHow Rapid Testing scheme, a HIV testing initiative in pubs and clubs in Ireland, as part of the National Sexual Health Strategy.

Minister of State at the Department of Health Catherine Byrne will open HIV Ireland’s 30th anniversary national conference today.

Speaking ahead of the event, she said: ”The government – through the HSE – continues to provide annual funding to HIV Ireland for the important work that it undertakes in the areas of support for people living with HIV and for the promotion of sexual health in the general population.”

Despite this, a groundbreaking HIV-prevention drug – which has been recommended by the World Health Organisation – has yet to be made available through the HSE general medical services scheme (GMS).

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) is a once-daily medication that can significantly reduce the risk of infection among HIV-negative people at high risk.

Truvada, a PrEP medication, is only available to buy on prescription at a price of over €400 a month in Ireland.

The HSE is currently conducting an assessment of whether it would be cost-effective for it to cover the drug. However, that assessment cannot continue until Gilead Sciences, the manufacturer of Truvada, makes a formal application to the HSE. This application has yet to be received.

A study conducted under the National Sexual Health Strategy 2015-2020, published on 26 April, estimated that 2,683 Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) are at substantial risk of contracting HIV and would benefit from the introduction of discounted PrEP medication.

“The government urgently needs to provide additional resources within the areas of HIV prevention, education, community testing, counselling, medication and human rights advocacy,” Mulligan said.

The one-day HIV Ireland conference taking place today will explore the history of HIV, stigma and social inclusion, homelessness, sex work, the LGBT community, the migrant community, and people living with HIV in Ireland since 1987.

Read: Explainer: What’s being done to bring anti-HIV medication into Ireland?

More: Increase in rate of HIV cases in Irish people aged over 50

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