Executive Director, HIV Ireland
In recent months, the number of newly notified cases of HIV in Ireland has risen sharply. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre has been notified of approximately 700 cases — double the number in 2021.
Every person living with HIV in Ireland, regardless of means, can access free, effective treatment through the public health system. Antiretroviral treatment reduces the amount of HIV in the body. Moreover, people on effective treatment who attain an undetectable viral load are also unable to pass on HIV through sex — a medical fact, known globally as ‘U=U’ or Undetectable = Untransmittable.
Unfortunately, a great deal of work remains if we are to realise the global ambition of ending new HIV transmissions by 2030. One very significant reason for this is the pervasive levels of stigma that continues to surround HIV and AIDS.
Recently published preliminary results from a study on HIV-related stigma by the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), which included data from Ireland, found that “people living with HIV in Europe are as likely to have experienced stigma in recent years as a decade ago,” particularly in healthcare settings where both the fear and reality of stigma remain pronounced.
Similar research conducted this year by Dr Elena Vaughan of NUI Galway, supported by HIV Ireland, found that among healthcare workers who were not HIV specialists, 83% claimed knowledge of ‘Undetectable = Untransmittable’ (U=U) and treatment as prevention. However, 40% said they would still be nervous about drawing blood from a person living with HIV, leading to unnecessary ‘extra’ precautions (eg. excessive use of PPE).
When we end stigma, the numbers will fall, and we will be on our way to ending new HIV transmissions.
Uniting with science
Upsetting instances of stigma and discrimination can be avoided with adequate training and education for health and social care professionals. Several community organisations, including HIV Ireland, provide such training. Changing negative attitudes in wider society is, unfortunately, a more difficult endeavour.
For years, HIV Ireland has promoted a campaign to end HIV-related stigma coinciding with World AIDS Day (1st December). The campaign is not just about solidarity but also equality, to echo the theme of World AIDS Day this year. It is about accepting the science that underpins treatment as prevention.
It is about ensuring that people living with HIV enjoy the same barrier-free and stigma-free access to goods and services. When we end stigma, the numbers will fall, and we will be on our way to ending new HIV transmissions.