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Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
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# world aids day
'Concerning' rise in HIV and STI cases since last year
There have also been more cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the first 11 months of 2022 than in all of 2019.

A HEALTH PROTECTION Surveillance Centre (HSPC) report published last week shows that there has been a huge jump in the number of STI and HIV cases from the beginning of 2022 until now, when compared with the same 46-week period in 2021.

A total of 15,970 cases of STIs and HIV have been recorded by the HPSC until mid-November, a 55% increase from the 10,277 that were notified in the first 46 weeks of last year.

In the last two weeks alone (data for the fortnight preceding 26 November), there were 406 reported cases of chlamydia and 211 of gonorrhoea.

In less than 11 months there have been 797 cases of HIV this year, a rise of almost 130% from the same period of 2021.

At the end of 2019, the last year before the pandemic impacted testing services, HIV cases were just over 550.

HIV Ireland has said that it expects this year to have the highest yearly figure of HIV cases if new cases continue at the same level into December, and that improvements in testing haven’t come far enough.

One of the biggest statistical trends has been a spike in HIV cases reported this spring with cases remaining high during the summer, approximately at the same time as monkeypox began to spread in Ireland.

The HPSC has linked the increase in HIV diagnoses 2021 and 2022 to “an increased number of people moving here who are living with HIV, including people who have been displaced from Ukraine”. It said that the majority of HIV diagnoses in Ireland in 2022 are in people who were previously diagnosed HIV positive outside Ireland.

HSE figures released to The Journal also show that the number of STI cases so far in 2022 have already surpassed the number of cases for all of 2019.

In 2019 there were 9,170 chlamydia cases and 2,805 of gonorrhea, whereas there have been 9,542 and 3,526 cases respectively, in just 46 weeks of this year.

Support services coordinator of the charity Sexual Health West, Nicole McGuigan, said she was concerned by cases of gonorrhoea almost doubling since the same period last year, and chlamydia cases being up almost 50%.

“We deal with supporting people in Galway, Mayo and Roscommon and I’ve noticed an increase in the number of seeking support regarding their HIV,” McGuigan told The Journal.

The pandemic relates to the increase in several ways, she said, as a lot more STI and HIV testing is now available.

For example: “A service called sh24.ie allows people to order tests to their homes for free and it’s only been finished rolling out in the country about six weeks ago. That does a lot to allow people to access testing, and to find out that they have an STI.”

“Testing is a lot more accessible now than it was during Covid or even before Covid.”

A HSE spokesperson told The Journal that the jump in cases from 2020 and 2021 may also be due to people who had STIs before Covid but were asymptomatic and only recently decided to avail of testing.

Pandemic

The HPSC’s data has shown that the two age groups most prone to contracting STIs are those between 20-24 and 25-29.

McGuigan explains this as young people adapting to a year with more social activity and no Covid-19 restrictions whatsoever.

“The general restrictions have all been lifted. Before vaccines were rolled out people may have been cautious about their sexual behaviours but now they are returning to their pre-Covid sexual behaviors and it’s spreading STIs,” she said.

HIV HSPC HIV cases notifications since 2015, with a large increase in spring of this year HSPC

“I think that when sexual health becomes something that’s in the media, when there’s a climate of sexual health being discussed, it wouldn’t surprise me if that brought it to the forefront of people’s attention,” McGuigan explained, saying this would have an impact on the number of people who then get tested for STIs.

“When it’s something people are keenly aware of they’ll be more likely to get tested, even if they are doing it as a precaution related to monkeypox. So I think it’s very possible there’s a link there.”

The HSPC report also recorded a significant amount of STI cases among people below the age of 19.

Fourteen people under the age of 14 were reported as having chlamydia, while over 1,000 STIs were noted in older teenagers between 15 and 19.

“There’s international research that definitely supports the idea that better sexual health education does lower the incidence of HIV and other STIs,” McGuigan stated.

“The government is in the process of creating a really good RSE curriculum – Relationships and Sexuality Education – for secondary schools, and I’m looking forward to when that is rolled out in schools.

“I really expect that when these young people are getting good and age-appropriate RSE that the rates of STIs will drop, because that’s what international evidence says will happen.”

World Aids Day

She added that a number of schools had reached out to Sexual Health West asking for its staff members to visit and cover the topic of STIs.

“It is something that students are actually identifying that they would like to be taught more about, so I guess young people themselves are aware of the importance of education.” 

Speaking ahead of World Aids Day today, McGuigan also said that there were misconceptions about the disease that needed to be fought against in order to reduce the stigma that people with HIV/AIDS must face.

“There’s a phrase in the community, ‘undetectable equals untransmissible’. It means that if somebody is on HIV medication that they are taking every day, and their HIV viral load is being monitored and it’s at undetectable levels, they can’t transmit it to someone through sexual activity,” she explained.

“There’s been a lot of progress, if a man has HIV and wants to have a baby with a female partner, that’s now possible if his viral load is undetectable. Previously he would have had to use protection to avoid giving her the disease, but that man can now become a father.”

The vast majority of people in Ireland with HIV are on treatment for the disease, and after enough treatment they will reach non transmissible levels, she detailed.

“Another misconception is that only men who have sex with men contract HIV. Although they are the majority, about a quarter of the people in Ireland with HIV are heterosexual women.” 

“It’s really important to understand that there isn’t just one group of people who need to get tested. Heterosexual people who’ve had unprotected sex should really go out and get tested as part of a normal STI screening.”

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