City Mayor praises ‘courageous’ women who set up support group for people with AIDS

The Mayor of Galway city has praised two young women who showed “bravery” and “foresight” by setting up an organisation to support people with AIDS and HIV in 1987.

Speaking at a reception to mark AIDS WEST’s 25th anniversary Cllr Terry O’Flaherty said the then college lecturers, Evelyn Stevens and Angela Savage, showed great courage.

Life was very different then in Ireland, she said. There were no mobile phones or internet and many people had only two television channels.

“It’s even harder to grasp how our attitudes to sex and sexual health have changed. Back then contraception was not freely available, condoms were only available on prescription and homosexuality was illegal.

“Both Church and State basically controlled citizens’ choices and behaviours as regards sexual relationships. But in the early 1980s a new deadly sexually transmitted virus, called HIV/AIDS, had just been identified in the western world. Interestingly, the first AIDS deaths reported in Ireland occurred in the Mater Hospital in Dublin in 1982. Barely a year after the first reports of the disease had appeared in America AIDS had made its way to Ireland.”

She stated there was “huge” fear among the public about the virus and total misinformation about how people became infected. Those living with HIV/AIDS also had to contend with the stigma surrounding the condition.

“It was against this background that two very courageous women, both young lecturers here at NUI Galway, decided that something had to be done. And all of us Galwegians are now very grateful to Evelyn Stevens and Angela Savage for their bravery and foresight.

“Firstly they decided to highlight the issue and bring public awareness to Galway and the west of Ireland. Secondly, they committed themselves to increase education about the virus and to combat misinformation. And thirdly, but most importantly, they aimed to provide support and counselling for those who were infected with the virus and to their families and indeed to anyone worried about being infected. So, AIDS West was established in 1987 under its then name Cáirde, its main aim of providing support to people with HIV/AIDS.

“Later in the early nineties it took on the aims of providing education and prevention services in the west of Ireland. At that time there was no government or regional policy on HIV/AIDS. As the organisation lobbied for HIV/AIDS services in the west it survived on the goodwill of a number of dedicated volunteers concerned about the situation.”

Cllr O’Flaherty stated that in 1992 the organisation received funding for the first time. In 2001 it set up its website and published Ireland’s only newsletter which focused on HIV issues. Around this time it changed its name to AIDS West and in line with best practice took as its brief the whole area of sexual health, including sexually transmitted infections and hepatitis.

She outlined that the organisation has continued to develop its role and provide a “much needed and valuable service” to people in Galway and the wider west of Ireland.

“Those 25 years cover from moving from dark days of stigma, isolation and death to a brighter today where, thanks to medical advances, people with HIV are living relatively normal lives. Yes, stigma and isolation still persists towards people living with HIV but a principal focus of AIDS West nowadays is to address these issues through education and awareness.”

She went on to say that the many achievements of AIDS West mirror the dedication of its volunteers and staff over the years. Celebrating 25 years in existence was a “wonderful” milestone, she said.

“I would like to say a special thanks to those volunteers, staff and board members, past and present, who have help the organisation down through the years.

“I congratulate AIDS WEST on achieving this wonderful milestone and wish you every success for the next 25 years.”

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