HIV expert calls on Ireland to help end stigma around virus

People still uncomfortable speaking about the epidemic, says head of Global Fund

Mark Dybul, executive director of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria: “it’s gender equality and a more equal society that will be the driver of whether or not we achieve the end of the HIV epidemic.” Photograph: Daniele Pauletto

Mark Dybul, executive director of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria: “it’s gender equality and a more equal society that will be the driver of whether or not we achieve the end of the HIV epidemic.” Photograph: Daniele Pauletto

 

Ireland must build on its recent promotion and awareness of LGBT rights to help bring an end to the stigma attached to HIV, an epidemic which has continued to rise across the State in recent years, a leading health professional has said.

Dr Mark Dybul, executive director of the Global Fund, says nations such as Ireland, which are placing increased focus on gender equality and building a more equitable society when it comes to sexual orientation, must harness the national interest in these issues to create a society which is accepting of the sexually-transmitted HIV virus.

“It’s a strange thing but we cannot end the HIV epidemic unless we become better human beings, that’s unique for an infectious disease,” said Mr Dybul, who has worked on HIV for more than 25 years.

“The reality is it’s gender equality and a more equal society that will be the driver of whether or not we achieve the end of the HIV epidemic and end discrimination in the process.”

According to the Health Service Executive, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people diagnosed with HIV, with 485 new cases reported in 2015, a rise of 30 per cent on the previous year. Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, statistics released in October 2016 showed 934 people were known to be living with HIV, with 81 men and 22 women diagnosed with the disease during 2015.

Protection

Despite our surface-level acceptance of our citizens’ sexual preferences, people are still uncomfortable speaking openly about how HIV is transmitted and how to protect yourself from the infection, Dr Dybul told The Irish Times.

“HIV is itself discriminatory, it preys on people who are left behind or marginalised by society.”

This does not mean only the LGBT community but also the millions of teenage girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa who are highly susceptible to the disease and who account for 25 per cent of new HIV infections among adults.

“Really where we’ll win or lose the epidemic on a global scale will be with teen girls and young women in southern and eastern, even western Africa.”

While the rate of HIV is rising in different parts of the world, Dr Dybul says the technology now exists to end epidemics such as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria in our lifetime.

“There are 22 countries that can achieve the elimination of malaria by 2020. In the past 10-15 years we’ve seen a drop of 60 per cent in the number of children under five dying from malaria. This is the generation that can end these epidemics but if we lose control of them they’ll come back in a drug-resistant form.”

A founding member of the Global Fund, Ireland has contributed more than €193 million since 2002, and in 2016 pledged €30 million to the fund’s work between 2017 and 2019.

Irish investment in the Global Fund, which aims to end AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, is a two-way process, says Dr Dybul.

“Development is no longer a one-way street. You put €10 million into the Global Fund while we’re putting €3.5 million back into Trinity Biotech in Ireland because they’re one of our suppliers of HIV rapid diagnostic tests.

“That’s how the global world works. People talk about too much money going into international development but then some of that money is coming right back here to buy goods.”