HIV rates more than doubled in Ireland over the last year, according to statistics published by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC).
The body responsible for tracking rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) has reported that for the first 51 weeks of the year, cases across nine disease types had risen by 56 per cent.
The upward trend follows concerns that Covid-19 restrictions had hampered testing services and the ability of people to present themselves for testing.
The HPSC data for HIV shows cases rose from 400 to 874 by the end of week 51 last year, a rise of 118 per cent.
Equally stark is the general rate of reported infections, which rose to 18,307 compared to 11,734 for the same period in 2021. They are also up 21 per cent against the total number for 2019 (15,097), the last full year of data recorded before the impact of the global health crisis.
Compared to the same 51-week period of 2021, gonorrhoea has increased 92 per cent; chlamydia 51 per cent; syphilis 26 per cent; and genital herpes 22 per cent.
Dr Derek Freedman, a specialist in STI treatment, said the data comparison with the Covid year of 2021 was “not the most appropriate” given its unique public health circumstances.
However, he noted that when measured against 2019 data, “the most valid comparison”, overall infection rates were still on the rise.
“It is extremely disappointing to see HIV on the increase because we know with PrEP that we can prevent HIV,” he said, although he questioned the adequacy of access to the drug in Ireland.
PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) stops the virus from establishing itself inside the body and is, according to HIV Ireland, about 99 per cent effective.
Addressing general upward STI trends, Dr Freedman said several factors were at play – clinics had been closed or curtailed during Covid-19, while social and sexual activity increased post-pandemic.
However, he said the results were somewhat surprising in the context of last summer’s monkey pox outbreak which was thought to have increased safer sexual practices within the gay community.
HPSC data shows that in the 2022 period reported, STI infections were considerably more common in the 20 to 24 year age group. Although HIV is more common among men, women accounted for just over one third of cases.
Dr Freedman linked the prevalence of STIs to the increased use of “hook-up” apps such as Grinder and Tinder.
“I’m not putting people off using dating apps, what I’m saying is they should have a protocol [of] ... no sex the first night,” he said.
“That takes away a lot of the risk-taking. Connect above the waist before you connect below the waist.”
In December, anticipating record diagnosis rates, HIV Ireland called for increased investment in nationwide sexual health service resources to help meet a commitment to end new transmissions. At that stage, the number had just passed 750.
“Underdiagnosis of HIV remains a concern,” said its director Stephen O’Hare, quoting European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control estimates that one-in-eight people were unknowingly living with the virus.