Record HIV diagnosis rates a crisis, say campaigners

John McCarthy Campaigners say the Government must tackle what they are calling Ireland’s HIV crisis.

Record HIV diagnosis rates a crisis, say campaigners

Campaigners say the Government must tackle what they are calling Ireland’s HIV crisis.

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

With its rising number of cases, Ireland is bucking the EU trend. In the UK, a strong prevention approach has led to significant decreases in new cases of the disease.

Ireland is at almost double the European average for new diagnoses.

Campaigners say rates of diagnosis are higher now than during the Aids epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, with one person now being diagnosed in Ireland every 17 hours. As a result, Act Up Dublin, a group committed to ending the HIV crisis, which was active in the early 1990s, reformed in 2016 to fight the stigma of HIV, and to campaign for access to preventative medication and more comprehensive testing.

Preventative medication, known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or Prep, taken daily, reduces a person’s risk of contracting HIV by 99% and is at least as effective as condoms at preventing HIV.

The HSE and Hiqa are trying to make Prep available in Ireland, but campaigners say they are taking too long, that new diagnosis numbers are alarming, and that urgent action must be taken.

Sex education is a key component of tackling the issue, as myths and stigma around HIV are obstacles to 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 is mostly likely to incorrectly believe that HIV can be passed to another person through a blood transfusion, kissing, 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,” he said.

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in direct opposition with what is happening with the rest of Europe, and it’s not a coincidence that we also have an outdated or non-existent sex education programme, compared to other countries too.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said reducing the number of new HIV diagnoses remains 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.

“Hiqa have been asked to to carry out a health technology assessment of introducing a pre-exposure prophylaxis programme in Ireland. Considerable work has already been completed by the HSE to prepare for the introduction of a programme that meets appropriate standards.”

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