Northern Ireland news

Questions over what happened to unspent funding allocated to halt spread of HIV in Northern Ireland

The drug can stop HIV from taking hold and spreading throughout the body and when taken daily is up to 99 per cent effective

THE Department of Health is under pressure to explain what has happened to money allocated to help prevent the spread of HIV which went unspent after the pandemic forced clinic closures.

Belfast trust's GUM/HIV Risk Reduction Clinic closed at the start of the pandemic as part of its Covid-19 reorganisation.

It provides Pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) daily medication to gay men to prevent HIV, a testing regimen and `behavioural interventions aimed at reducing unsafe sex'.

The drug can stop HIV from taking hold and spreading throughout the body and when taken daily is up to 99 per cent effective.

"Service users in Belfast have been without clinics since the pandemic and people have had to go to neighbouring trusts," Green Party councillor Anthony Flynn said.

"Some have gone to Altnagelvin and others have had their blood tests in Ballymena, but not everyone has the transport to do that.

"People have been buying PrEP online, which can cost £60 a month - again not everyone is in a position to do that."

The pilot project had secured funding until March 31 2021, but was among services wound up during the first lockdown as the trust poured resources into preparing to treat coronavirus patients.

Mr Flynn warned PrEP services across the north are now facing a "cliff-edge" within weeks, after the department confirmed it has yet to "secure funding" for their continuation.

PrEP has been hailed as a cost-saving measure for health services, compared to lifetime treatment costs for one person with HIV which stand at around £380,000.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "Work continues to secure funding to support recurrent investment."

Mr Flynn said this response was "disappointing" with PrEP users in a state of anxiety over the prospect of their treatment ending within days.

He called for clarity on what has happened to the money, earmarked for the Belfast clinic which has been unspent due to its closure.

The department did not respond to queries on what had happened to the funding for the Belfast clinic and whether it could be used to extend the service.

"There needs to be a level of clarity about where this money has gone," Mr Flynn said.

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