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Column: 'There are 1800 people in Ireland who may have HIV but don't know it'

On Irish AIDS Day, Pam McHugh says people should ask themselves if they know their HIV status – and if not, why not.

Pam McHugh

Pam McHugh, Chair of the Dóchas HIV and Aids Working Group, says that with the right commitment and the right approach to sexual health we can live in a HIV-free world.

As much as 30 per cent of people living with HIV in Europe may not know they have the disease.

Today, around 6,000 people in Ireland are living with HIV and, as we mark Irish AIDS Day, it is worth thinking about the 1800 people in Ireland who may also be living with HIV but do not know it.

But how can someone get the treatment they need and prevent passing on the virus if they do not know they are HIV positive themselves?

Around the world, governments and NGOs are focusing on prevention as the key to tackling the disease. The focus of this year’s Irish AIDS Day is the promotion of HIV testing and the benefits of knowing your health status. Evidence shows that testing for HIV is one of the best means of prevention, and regular testing can assist in reducing the spread of HIV from one person to another as people adopt safer sexual behaviours.

We’re fortunate in Ireland that no-one who is HIV positive needs to go untreated. But this is not the case in many of the countries in which Irish development NGOs work.

’34 million people in the developing world are living with HIV- 80 per cent of those are undiagnosed’

Unfortunately, the global inequalities that exist around the world mean that poor people living in developing countries bear a greater burden when it comes to living with HIV. Currently, 34 million people in the developing world are living with the disease, but as much as 80 per cent of those are undiagnosed. There are a few key reasons for this.

Global poverty means that people in developing countries do not have the same level of access to quality healthcare than we do. In Ireland, these services are readily available, testing is free, confidential and easy to access, with many health centres and GPs providing testing and counselling. But governments in developing countries do not have the funding and families do not have the income to pay for the treatment needed to bring the disease under control.

‘We have our share of stigma in this country’

Another reason is stigma and discrimination. It’s true we have our share of stigma in this country, but it is not as keenly felt as in developing countries.

Rooted in fear, ignorance and misinformation, stigma discourages people from getting tested because they fear knowing, fear how it may change their lives and fear and how they may be treated by their communities if they find that they are HIV positive. But stigma can be combated by information, education and greater openness about the realities of the disease. HIV and AIDS campaigner, Fr Michael Kelly, recently commented, “HIV and AIDS do not stigmatise – people do. It is an assault on human dignity and worth.”

‘Getting a positive diagnosis is devastating, but it does not have to be a death sentence’

Irish NGOs working around the world on these issues come together through Dóchas, the Irish Association of Development NGOs, to push forward the progress being made. Working in this field, and as chairperson of an NGO group focusing on HIV and AIDS, I know how devastating a positive diagnosis can be for people in rich and poor countries alike, but it does not have to be a death sentence.

Early diagnosis is the key to a long and healthy life living with HIV so people should look to their own future and learn their status if they think they might have been exposed to the virus.

Due to the work of government aid donors, development NGOs and most importantly, people and governments of developing countries themselves, HIV services in many low-income countries are improving, access to prevention education and testing and treatment are becoming more readily available.  Another important part of these successes is leadership and investment at global, national and local levels to fight against HIV and AIDS.

‘Testing for the disease is the best form of prevention’

HIV is a preventable disease and testing is one of the best forms of preventing the spread of HIV –knowing your own status can ensure that others do not become infected.  In other words, if everyone knows their HIV status and those with HIV continue to prevent the spread of the virus, HIV can be eliminated altogether.  With the right commitment and the right approach to sexual health we can live in a HIV-free world.

On Irish AIDS Day, consider the 34 million people living with HIV around the world and the 80 per cent who do not know their status.

Now ask yourself if you should know yours. If you can’t tell whether someone else is living with HIV, perhaps you also can’t be sure you are not. Why not get tested?

Pam McHugh is Chair of the Dóchas HIV & Aids Working Group. Dóchas is the Irish association of development NGOs representing 49 NGOs working in Ireland and around the world to eliminate poverty.

For more information on AIDS awareness click here>

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Pam McHugh

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