Last Wednesday UCD Students’ Union released a statement, referencing a letter that was sent to the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, calling for the reopening of the free HIV testing services that are facilitated through the Gay Men’s Health Service (GMHS), a service that has been suspended for many months. This comes after a mandate was passed at the February 1st council mandating that the Welfare and C&E officers lobby for this.
SU President Conor Anderson spoke of the important work the GMHS service does in the de-stigmatisation of STI’s, through screening and PrEP services; “I consider access to STI testing and sexual health services to be of critical importance”.
The cost of HIV screening and the PrEP service were once a barrier to access, but with the introduction of the GMHS, both services were made free, and as stated by Welfare Officer Ruairí Power, “the lack of availability of such services free at the point of entry has created a two-tier system where service access is determined based on availability to pay rather than clinical need”.
In the letter to the Minister for Health, the Students’ Union highlighted the growing concern facing students as a result of the continued closure of the GMHS. It warns of the “risk of undermining the gains made in the provision of PrEP services, rapid HIV tests, rollout of the HPV/hepatitis vaccinations and full STI screening” associated with the continued closure of the service.
The Students’ Union contended that it was unacceptable that third-level students be without the service, in particular those who are unable to access testing as a result of the cost now associated with private consultations. This may mean that those who are in most need of testing and treatment may have no way of accessing it, and no timeline with which the GMHS is expected to reopen.
It also warns of the possible harm of the closure of the essential service, noting the progress the GMHS has made, and to keep the service non-operational is to undo much of this work “the continued closure of the busiest PrEP service in the state may well precipitate a major impact on HIV rates in the short term”. The Gay Men’s Health Service, which was founded 29 years ago, “offered testing, treatment, vaccination and prevention services to nearly 12,000 gay and bisexual men and trans people in 2019”. This figure is up from 7,553 in 2016, exhibiting a need for the service among its clients in Ireland.
The SU outlined how the service is of vital necessity to both third-level students and those who face a cost barrier. The GMHS addressed and assisted people in both of these groups, and there is concern that with the service closed, there may be an inability to access this healthcare, the letter reiterating the work the GMHS does “services are absolutely vital to LGBTQ+ young people, particularly those who would struggle with the cost procuring private screening and PrEP services”.
It mentions the successful STI home testing kits service launched by the HSE, but is critical of its suspension, especially given such interest from those who need testing. They urge the minister to see the urgent need to restore services like this and others that are vital to maintaining the health of the clients of the GMHS.
Fair allocation of funding was the bottom line, and is what is being asked of the Minister, the letter urging the government to “redesignate the GMHS and related services as essential healthcare provision, provide the required resources for reliable provision of home testing kits, and to ensure that the meaningful gains are made towards eradicating HIV and reducing the prevalence of STIs in Ireland”.