Republic of Ireland news

Campaigners say urgent action must be taken to tackle HIV crisis

Noel Donnellon, from ACT UP Dublin

CAMPAIGNERS say government must take urgent action to tackle what they are calling Ireland's HIV crisis.

There were 531 new HIV diagnoses in 2018, the highest number on record.

As the number continues to rise, Ireland is bucking the EU trend, compared to other European countries like the UK where a strong combination prevention approach has led to significant decreases in new cases.

Ireland is at almost double the European average.

Campaigners say a lack of urgency from government is compounding the problem, which is seeing higher numbers than during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, with one person now being diagnosed in Ireland every 17 hours.

Such is the height of the problem, ACT UP Dublin, a group committed to ending the HIV crisis, which was active in the early 1990s, reformed in 2016 to begin work again, fighting the stigma surrounding HIV, campaigning for access to preventative medication and more comprehensive testing.

Preventative medication, known as PrEP, taken daily, reduces a person's risk of contracting HIV by more than 99 per cent and is at least as effective as condoms at preventing HIV.

The HSE and HIQA are currently engaged in a process to make PrEP available in Ireland, but campaigners say the process has already taken too long and as new diagnosis numbers reach alarming levels, urgent action must be taken.

Sex education has also been flagged as a key component of tackling the issue, as myths and stigma around HIV present obstacles in the uptake of testing and safe sex.

A HIV Ireland report in 2017 flagged that people in the 18-34 age group had higher levels of misinformation than other age groups.

That age group are mostly likely to incorrectly believe that HIV can be passed to another person through a blood transfusion in Ireland, kissing someone and sharing a toilet seat.

The Oireachtas Education Committee last month called on the government to reform the sex education programme, which has not been changed in two decades.

Noel Donnellon from ACT UP Dublin said although there was some movement from the government on the issue in 2018, he worries the sense of urgency has waned.

"We are absolutely in a crisis, we are seeing rising numbers of new diagnoses, in direct opposition with what is happening with the rest of Europe, and it's not a coincidence that we also have an outdated or non-existent sex education programme compared to other countries too," he said.

"PrEP is important, but it's part of a programme, we need better education, we need more accessible testing services, and we need to tackle the stigma surrounding HIV and getting tested.

"HIV is still seen as dirty, people use it as a finger-wagging exercise, that it's self-inflicted, when it's just not the case.

"You would never judge someone who was diagnosed with cancer, as a nation we need to remember the 'H' in HIV stands for human, and it's a human issue, not something to judge people for."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said reducing the number of new HIV diagnoses in Ireland remained a priority.

"The department welcomes the significant progress that has been made over the past number of years but acknowledges more must be done to reduce the number of people diagnosed with HIV," she said.

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