A voluntary organisation which offers support and care to people affected by HIV/AIDS is organising a candelit memorial service in the city to mark World AIDS Day on December 1.
The event, which is being run by AIDS West, will take place at St Nicholas’ Church at 8pm and will feature the Cois Cladaigh Choir, Delia Boyce and Sandra Shalks. Fr Peter McVerry, the Dublin based Jesuit priest who has been a champion of young homeless people, is the guest speaker. Everyone is welcome.
About 6,000 people nationally have HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, according to John Flannery, the general manager of AIDS West. One person is diagnosed with it in Ireland every day.
He says about 30 to 40 people in the west are diagnosed with the virus annually. AIDS West has 120 to 130 clients of which about 60 per cent are men. Clients range in age from 18 years to people in their 50s
“Getting the news that you have HIV can be earth-shattering,” he says. “It tends to be an awful shock. The first reaction tends to be one of disbelief. A lot of people never thought they’d get it. You may or may not get symptoms. People might feel really unwell but that’s not always the case. You could have contracted it and it could be latent in you for years.”
Mr Flannery says many do not realise that having the virus is not a “death sentence” anymore. While HIV is not curable it is treatable. Fewer and fewer people go on to develop full blown AIDS [AIDS is the most advanced stage of the HIV infection] nowadays, he says.
“It is a chronic complaint but thankfully the medicine has improved. It is very good now and people with HIV are living relatively normal lives. When people are diagnosed (most are referred to AIDS West from the infectious diseases clinic at UHG ) we make them aware that it is not the end of the world. HIV attacks the immune system and, while the medicine does not kill it. it staves it off. The treatment has improved, people would take about one to three tablets a day now.”
However, “stigma, isolation and discrimination” still continue to be “huge” issues for people with the condition, he says, and most are reluctant to tell others. In many cases people’s families do not even know of their diagnoses. Some will only confide in one or two people. Many clients live in rural areas and their diagnosis coupled with their geographical isolation is a “double hit” for these people, according to Mr Flannery.
“In the last five years there has been more openness but people still get labelled and there is a lot of misinformation around. HIV can only be transmitted through semen or vaginal fluid, breast milk or blood transfusions. People mistakenly think they can get it by drinking from a cup [used by someone with HIV].”
He urges anyone who thinks they may have been exposed to the virus to get tested [at UHG]. “Anyone who has taken a risk would be as well off to be tested. This applies to older people as well as younger people. If they are worried we would advocate the use of condoms to protect oneself.”
AIDS West - which was founded 25 years ago by Evelyn Stevens and Angela Savage and is financed by the HSE, donations and fundraising - has three main roles, he says. To support people living with HIV, to provide education on sexual health and the impact of drugs/alcohol and to heighten awareness.
The organisation, which serves Galway, Mayo and Roscommon and is based at Ozanam House, St Augustine Street, targets students as part of its second and third level education programmes.
“We do huge work in education. We went into 44 of the 90 secondary schools last year in the west. We provide a programme usually for transition year students, then second years. We do three one-and-a-half hour sessions, covering relationships, contraception, the dangers of pregnancy and infection. We would say to students if they are taking chances then protect themselves. We also provide education for parenting workshops, youth organisations, marginalised groups, such as asylum seekers and the gay community, and other organisation such as Cope, Simon, Rape Crisis Centre, etc.”
While the issue of HIV tends to attract the spotlight he stresses there are “high levels” of other sexually transmitted infections, both bacterial and viral, in Ireland.
“These include chlamydia (bacterial ) - 15/17 people a day in Ireland are diagnosed with it. Untreated infection can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease in women which is linked to infertility. Men may experience painful swollen testicles if untreated. Chlamydia also affects the quality of sperm and is linked to fertility issues in men. About 10 people are diagnosed with genital warts (viral ) daily in this country.”
AIDS West can be contacted at (091 ) 566266.