Gavin Tracey examines the prevalence of stigma that still exists in Ireland towards sufferers of HIV and AIDS.

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KnowNow is Ireland’s first national rapid HIV testing programme, which has been rolled out in Dublin, Cork and Limerick. The entirely free service was launched by GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network), The Sexual Health Centre Cork and GOSHH (Gender Orientation Sexual Health and HIV), in order to combat the spread of HIV. The kits will be available in a variety of places, perhaps most notably in the Pantibar on Capel Street.

The test itself is straightforward, taking less than a minute to deliver a 99.96 per cent accurate result, needing only a small drop of blood taken from a finger. The importance of knowing one’s status is vital, as new drugs and treatments mean HIV is nowhere near as serious a disease, for those living in developed nations, as it once was. For many people living with it, they take one tablet a day for the rest of their lives, and within six months some can even stop being infectious.

Rory O’Neill (known to most by his drag alter ego Panti Bliss) spoke at the announcement, stating: “as part of tackling the stigma around HIV we need to make it easier for people to be tested, for people to know their HIV status and to know that being HIV positive is manageable.” O’Neill himself is HIV positive, and wants to raise awareness about HIV, and more importantly remove the stigma surrounding it. He said that stigma around HIV is as bad “if not worse” than that surrounding abortion.

Upon closer inspection, the levels of stigma surrounding those who are HIV positive are astounding. In a report carried out by Stamp Out – a HIV and AIDS awareness group – people who suffered from HIV and those who did not were surveyed in regards to the attitudes held about HIV in Ireland. The findings were revealing, and it showed just how misunderstood the illness is in Irish society.

The report found that although there was a large amount of public sympathy for those suffering from HIV, 23 per cent would be worried about eating a meal that was prepared by someone with HIV. As well as that, 37 per cent said that if a family member were to contract the virus they would keep the HIV status of him/her a secret. While there may be sympathy towards sufferers, the lack of understanding amongst the general population is startling. 84 per cent of those living with HIV feel as though they have been discriminated against in the past, or are still being stigmatised today.

Niall Mulligan, executive director of HIV Ireland, spoke of the discrimination in an Oireachtas Health Committee in 2015. He highlighted cases whereby those with HIV had been treated unfairly, including one case where a man was fired from his job on a cruise ship once it became known he had HIV. HIV Ireland also had to convince a crèche manager that alerting parents as to the HIV status of one of the children in his care was unnecessary.

Amongst younger people, HIV is often seen as a disease that used to affect people, or only remains in African countries.

HIV is a disease that disproportionality affects gay and bisexual men. According to recent figures from the HSE, males who have sex with males (MSM) make up 47 per cent of those who suffer from HIV. Perhaps most shocking is the discrimination from those who should know better, namely doctors, nurses and dentists.

The reports highlights that there is a high incidence of doctors and dentists discriminating against those living with HIV, with over one third of people living with HIV answering that this was so. For example, in 2015 it became known that some dentists were referring patients with HIV to community dental schemes. Patients who contracted the disease via drug use also reported that the nurses who were treating them were highly judgemental of them.

Ultimately the problem lies in a lack of education and awareness around HIV and AIDS. In the past there have been very successful campaigns to educate people about the disease. However these stopped when, after the manufacturing of new drugs, HIV ceased to become a “death sentence”. The lack of education surrounding HIV has led to a rise in the number of cases. Since 2005 the number of people with HIV has increased by 200 per cent, and the average age of someone who has HIV has dropped from 37 to 31 in the same time period. For older generations who were around when HIV was at its most damaging and most widespread, they may be more aware of the disease. However amongst younger people, it’s often seen as a disease that used to affect people, or only remains in African countries.

The stigma faced by those living with HIV stems not from a place of malice or ill will, but from an ignorance surrounding the illness. By educating people about it, both the number of new cases and the levels of discrimination will drop dramatically. Young people need to be more aware of the disease to protect themselves, as well as to avoid discriminating against those who suffer from HIV.