HIV rise: being man enough to stay safe
Once considered a death sentence, HIV is now a chronic, treatable illness. But does this mean young gay men are becoming complacent about the disease, as a rise in HIV diagnoses suggests?
A recent HSE report found a 160 per cent increase in HIV diagnosis among gay and bisexual men between 2005 and 2012, as well as a drop in the average age of diagnosis from 38 to 32. Photograph: Getty Images
The increase in new cases of HIV among gay and bisexual men outlined in a recent report by the HSE came as no surprise to those working in the area. The HIV in Ireland 2012 report found a 160 per cent increase in HIV diagnosis among gay and bisexual men between 2005 and 2012, and said the average age of diagnosis had also dropped, from 38 to 32.
Increased testing contributes to the rise, but why are young gay men still such a high-risk group given the virtually global emphasis on safe sex? The key word among medical professionals is “complacency”.
HIV/Aids, once a death sentence, is now a chronic, treatable illness. The virus has stayed the same, but the drugs have improved. However, education about HIV appears to be intermittent, particularly for young men born after HIV peaked as an international talking point.
Open Heart House, an organisation that offers support to people living with HIV, has more than 1,100 members. “There is definitely a complacency . . . People think: ‘I can take a pill and address it.’ The other issue is we haven’t had a campaign for years. I have students in and their lack of knowledge astonishes me,” says Paula Gilmore, the organisation’s chief executive.
Rory O’Neill, a prominent figure in the LGBT community, has spoken out frequently about the stigma surrounding HIV. “This is just my opinion, but I strongly suspect that young people don’t view HIV as quite the horror that we did 10, 15 or 20 years ago. They didn’t grow up with the tombstone ads on TV. They don’t know anyone who has died from it.
“If they do come across somebody who is HIV positive, they are living their life, taking their drugs, and it makes it look like a manageable, chronic condition. I think the younger gays don’t fear HIV in the ways that we did . . . And it’s a big mistake on their part.”
At a busy gay bar in the middle of last week, the crowd is spilling in, a mixture of mostly young gay guys and gay girls and their straight friends. A remix of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky is playing, and the smoking section is the perfect illustration of the LGBT scene: a convergence of backgrounds, ages and ethnicities.
Declan (19), one of the young men in the bar, says he doesn’t know anyone with HIV. “If one of my friends had HIV, I’d be really shocked. I’ve never been into casual sex, and that’s one of the reasons because it is seen as a life-ruiner.”
Although there are no physical signs evident if someone has a positive HIV status, Declan says that among his peers there is a belief that you can tell if someone is HIV positive or not. “One of my friends came up to me in [a gay bar] the other night and said ‘they definitely have it’ about this guy and told me ‘you need to be careful’. People think it’s like leprosy or something, that you can tell if people have it . . . I’ve been told it’s a big problem, but you don’t really have to know about it.”
Also in the bar is John (21), who uses Grindr, a geo-location smartphone app for gay and bisexual men to access dates and sexual encounters. He says “70 per cent of the guys” on Grindr ask for sex without a condom. “I’ve got drunk and had sex without a condom . . . twice. If someone told me a year ago you could get all this stuff just one time, I would never have done it. But being honest with you, I didn’t even know.