Dominic McGrath, PA
Stigma still exists around HIV in Ireland, a charity has warned.
Stephen O’Hare, executive director of HIV Ireland, warned that stigma around diagnosis is still a major problem for many people.
Speaking at the launch of the organisation’s annual report, he said: “What we need to do is reduce the incidence of HIV-related stigma, because we will not reduce HIV transmission without tackling stigma.
“If you don’t tackle stigma, you’re not going to get your HIV transmission to go downwards.”
Mr O’Hare said the European Centre for Disease Control is currently conducting an EU-wide survey on stigma surrounding HIV.
He added: “Obviously, in times gone past, the stigma around HIV was very, very, very severe, very, very significant, very pronounced.
“Perhaps it isn’t to the same degree, but it’s there and it affects people.
“It’s very difficult to find people in Ireland who will be public about their HIV status because of the stigma and the difficulties that surround that.”
Figures from the organisation’s annual report show that it saw a significant rise in the number of people living with HIV seeking support and advocacy services since the pandemic began.
Calls to HIV Ireland rose 49 per cent in 2020, with over 2,800 interventions recorded by the organisation throughout 2020.
These interventions included advocacy, counselling and providing information to those living with HIV.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, who was meant to attend the launch but was instead required to take part in the Covid-19 Cabinet sub-committee, said in a statement that the organisation was “playing a vital role in implementation our national sexual health strategy”.
He said the services provided in 2020 “speaks for itself in terms of the importance of the support HIV Ireland provides in the community”.
Mr O’Hare said access to HIV testing had been “difficult” last year but added it was slowly returning to normal.
He also said health officials and policymakers dealing with the pandemic could perhaps learn from the history of HIV.
He added: “I think we anticipated as an organisation that stigma would play a role in how the public perception of Covid-19 played out. I think you began to see that towards the latter half of 2020.
“I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from how HIV was dealt with in the past, to how we can deal with Covid-19 and stigma going forward.”
On World Aids Day on December 1st, famous buildings across Ireland will light up in red to raise awareness of HIV. Dublin Castle and the Rock of Cashel will be among the settings that will light up red next month.
“The point of it is not to turn on the Christmas lights. The point of it is to raise awareness in relation to HIV and particularly reducing HIV related stigma,” Mr O’Hare said.