Half the people diagnosed HIV positive in Ireland last year had the virus for long periods before getting tested, latest figures from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre show.
Categorised by medics as “late presenters”, they risked missing out on advances in HIV treatment that allow many patients have a perfectly normal life expectancy.
A drive is under way to encourage anyone who has even the slightest reason to believe they might be at risk of HIV infection to get tested before the virus gets a chance to cause irreparable damage.
Erin Nugent, community support co-ordinator of the country’s largest Aids charity, the Dublin Aids Alliance, warned: “Those who are diagnosed late are less likely to respond to treatment and are more likely to experience serious health complications and premature death.”
According to the HPSC, 344 people — 75% of them male — were newly diagnosed with HIV last year, a figure in keeping with recent years. However, 50% of those were reported as late presenters, as measured by their white cell count, which falls over time in untreated patients.
Half of those diagnosed had cell counts already below the minimum threshold where best medical practice directs treatment should begin, and half of that group were categorised as severely immuno-compromised, with critically low counts. In 8% of cases, the patient already had Aids.
“Often people do not go for testing because they think they have not been at risk or because they are not experiencing symptoms,” said Dr Nugent. “Equally, people are fearful of the stigma and discrimination that can accompany a HIV positive diagnosis.
“People who are diagnosed early can expect the same life expectancy as those who are HIV negative, and people adhering to HIV medication have a significantly reduced chance of transmitting the virus.”
Around 20 hospitals and clinics around the country offer free HIV testing and contact details for all of them are available on www.dublinaidsalliance.ie
The Sexual Health Centre on Peters Street in Cork city normally charges a small fee for HIV tests but is offering them free next Monday, June 16.
The drive for more testing comes in advance of Irish Aids Day tomorrow, when volunteers will be selling red ribbon badges to raise awareness about HIV/Aids and collect funds for one of the country’s leading medical authority on the subject, the Guide Clinic at St James’s Hospital in Dublin.
According to the HPSC, the highest proportion of new diagnoses (46%) last year were among men who have sex with other men, while (38%) were in people engaging in heterosexual sex. In this group, more than half (57%) came from countries where there were HIV epidemics, and 8% had a high-risk partner or a partner who was HIV positive.
One in 20 cases were people who injected drugs — and three cases involved children who had been infected by their mothers during pregnancy or birth.