People with HIV continue to experience stigma, discrimination and isolation, according to the manager of AIDS West.
John Flannery’s comments came as the organisation marked Irish AIDS day recently by taking to the streets distributing red ribbons to the public. These were used to show solidarity with people living with HIV and in memory of those who have died from the virus. A large red ribbon was on display at many iconic sites throughout the city.
This special day began more 20 years ago when Ireland was “a bit of a backwater” compared to most other European countries when it came to the whole area of sex, he said.
“Contraception was still only by prescription, sex outside marriage didn’t happen (or that’s what people wanted to believe ) and sex between same sex couples was a criminal offence,” he outlined.
“So, to highlight the threat that HIV held for Irish society and maybe help break down barriers, the national HIV Support Network (of which AIDS West is a member ) and other groups working in the field decided that having an Irish AIDS Day would help create greater awareness around HIV issues. We hope that by highlighting Irish AIDS Day in the manner we did will keep that awareness about HIV in the public domain.”
Evelyn Stephens, the co-founder of AIDS West, stated Irish AIDS Day began as a way of trying to raise awareness about AIDS.
“It was also a much needed fundraiser for the organisations nationwide. We’re always trying to get publicity on local radio and papers, which wasn’t that easy at the time.”
She said HIV is as relevant today as it was then. “The most recent figures show that there were 341 new diagnoses of HIV reported in 2012, that’s almost one person a day in Ireland being infected. This represents a seven per cent increase on the previous year. So Irish AIDS Day brings awareness about HIV to public awareness.”
According to the latest research people living with HIV have the same or better life expectancy (due to being constantly monitored ) than the rest of the population, says Gerry Coy, support service co-ordinator at AIDS West.
Writing in the summer edition of the AIDS West magazine he points out, however, that due to lack of knowledge and information on the condition it still strikes fear into most people.
He maintains stigma and discrimination still remain as the blocks to acceptance of HIV as a chronic condition.
“One of the main issues arising over the years is how people are unaware of their status mainly because they have never been tested. It is estimated that the number of undiagnosed cases could be over 20 per cent of the official numbers.”
He outlined that last year the main HIV support organisations in the country launched a campaign called “Don’t guess, get tested”. It aimed to encourage early HIV testing and to raise awareness of the number of people who presented late with HIV in Ireland.
“With the advances in medication and a better understanding of the need to diagnose the condition early there is a greater need for more people to test. Reuters reported on April 29 that in America an influential panel of doctors and scientists is calling for HIV screening of all Americans aged 15 to 65 regardless of whether they are considered to be of high risk. They believe this would help lift some of the stigma of testing.”
Recent studies indicate that HIV treatment can reduce the risk of transmission of the virus to an uninfected partner by as much as 96 per cent, he stated.
He explained that late diagnosis can lead to many health complications which may not occur if treatment is started on time.
“Like America we need to highlight the benefits of testing and convince people that being informed is the only way to truly stay healthy.”
* AIDS West, which is based in Galway, provides information, education and support in relation to HIV/AIDS and all aspects of sexual health. For further information and services telephone (091 ) 566266 or email [email protected] or you can download its free APP called “The sexual health guide”.