Time to man up and take charge of sexual health
SEXUAL AWARENESS:The stigma of HIV/Aids is painful and the reason awareness campaigns are needed
HIV diagnoses among men having sex with men has increased significantly in recent years, according to the Gay Men’s Health Service (GMHS) 2011 annual report.Those most at risk are 18 to 29 year olds and figures released by the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre for the first half of last year highlight 152 new HIV diagnoses.
Just under half of these were among men having sex with men, and overall the numbers attending for health advice and treatment at GMHS services last year increased by 36 per cent when compared to 2010.
The concern for those at the frontline delivering health services to the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) community is that complacency may be increasing among certain sexually active gay groups, with a significant number of those presenting for treatment and diagnosis now first-time attendees.
To counter this, the final phase of a dedicated year-long health programme, supported by the HSE and the Gay Health Network, and aimed at increasing awareness and treatment for both HIV/Aids and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), has enlisted the help of The George, one of the social centre points of the LGBT community for the past three decades.
The bar, which the owners say was one of the first in Dublin to be opened specifically as a gay bar, has helped finance the creation and distribution of 100,000 free safer sex packs in collaboration with the Man2Man organisation. The packs include condoms and lubricants for men who have sex with men. They will be available in the bar, but will also handed out through groups around the country in the coming weeks.
Noel Sutton, who has worked as a drag queen at The George and also with Alternative Miss Ireland, says it is the first time he remembers a gay bar getting directly involved in a health campaign on this scale, although the community has been holding health awareness programmes for several years.
“I lived through the 1980s at a time when my friends contracted the HIV virus and died as a result. It was a time when Aids was a big nasty word and everyone was scared for their lives,” he says. “This changed from the 1990s onwards, facilitated through gay men taking responsibility for their own actions and organising themselves. At that time, we started distributing condoms in bars and clubs and Alternative Miss Ireland also began to fund health-related programmes.”
Fifty-year-old Jimmy Goulding was told he was HIV positive in 1990. At that time awareness around the disease was pretty slight, he says. Goulding, who works with several health awareness groups, says some younger men today have a similar lack of awareness around HIV/Aids.