New statistics show 934 people are now known to be living with HIV in Northern Ireland – the highest number ever on record.
A total of 81 men and 22 women were diagnosed last year, bringing the number of people being treated for the virus, which damages the immune system, to almost three times what it was in 2006.
The 103 cases of HIV diagnosis last year is the largest number to be recorded in the North in a single year. It is estimated that hundreds more do not know that they have HIV.
Detail Data, a partnership project between investigative news website The Detail and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, has examined the newly released 2015 HIV surveillance data for the UK produced by Public Health England.
Of all the people currently living with HIV in Northern Ireland, the probable exposure category for 58 per cent was sex between men. In 38 per cent of cases, it was heterosexual contact.
Less than 1 per cent are thought to have been infected as a result of injecting drug use, although sex between men includes men who also reported injecting drug use.
The ethnic group of 777 of those diagnosed with HIV is recorded as “white” while 114 are categorised as ‘Black African’.
The chief executive of Northern Ireland's dedicated HIV charity Positive Life, Jacquie Richardson, said that a new sexual health promotion strategy and public information campaign is needed. The Northern Ireland Assembly's last strategy ran out in December last year. The charity has established an online petition calling for action.
Ms Richardson said: “Without a strategy we don’t see any investment and we think it’s really, really important that money is put into education so that young people know how to look after themselves and know how to take charge of their own sexual health.
“We also would like to see investment in public awareness raising and campaigns to challenge the old stigmas and the old perceptions of the 1980s and bring people right up to speed with HIV and what HIV means to people living with it in Northern Ireland.”
Dr Say Quah, consultant in genitourinary medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, backed the call for a new sexual health promotion strategy. "Year on year, there is an increase in the number of people diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, syphilis and gonorrhoea. Poor sexual health is a significant burden on the wellbeing of people living in Northern Ireland.
“We have many health and social care organisations and volunteer sector organisations that can contribute greatly to improve sexual healthcare – but we need our Assembly to set a strategic direction so that services can be developed in tandem with health promotion with a common goal of collaboration between all stakeholders.”
From 1985 or earlier, a total of 1,253 HIV diagnoses have been recorded in Northern Ireland. Of these cases, 75 per cent were aged between 25 and 49 years old when diagnosed. Six were children aged under 15 at the time of diagnosis and 17 people were aged 65 or older.
A total of 126 HIV-diagnosed people in Northern Ireland have died – this includes AIDS and non-AIDS related deaths.
Others may have moved out of Northern Ireland since their initial diagnosis.
Some 93 per cent of the 934 people (729 men and 205 women) being treated for the virus are receiving antiretroviral therapy which is a combination of drugs that aim to suppress the virus and stop progression of the disease.
The cost of treating HIV infection for one person is estimated at almost £380,000 (€425,000) over their lifetime.