People with HIV in Ireland continue to face a stigma - President

Number of new HIV cases recorded ‘concerning’, says President Higgins

    President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina meeting  Rory O Neill aka Panti Bliss at a reception hosted by the President and his wife for World Aids Day in A Áras an Uachtaráin. Photograph:  Maxwells

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina meeting Rory O Neill aka Panti Bliss at a reception hosted by the President and his wife for World Aids Day in A Áras an Uachtaráin. Photograph: Maxwells

 

President Michael D Higgins has said people with HIV in Ireland continue to face a stigma.

Speaking at a ceremony at Áras an Uachtaráin on World AIDS Day, Mr Higgins said it was a time to reflect on the right to equality and the right to services of those who had HIV and the discrimination and stigma they faced.

“It is troubling now to recall the moral and ethical atmosphere of Irish society in 1982, when the first two cases of AIDS were diagnosed. Those who suffered the most in the 1980s were those exposed not only to a prejudice born of misunderstanding of HIV and AIDS, but also to other forms of social oppression which were, and are, too often manifested in our society,” he said.

“At that time, contraceptives were only available through a medical prescription - as was said at the time, this was ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’. Our laws prohibited same-sex sexual relationships. My two predecessors in this Office, Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, both played a significant role in the campaign - led with bravery by Senator David Norris - to overturn this discriminatory legislation,” he added.

“Our social policies were insufficient to a moment of crisis in Irish society, and the citizens of our cities and towns - particularly parts of Dublin City - paid a terrible price in the 1980s,” he said.

There were 508 new HIV diagnoses recorded by the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre in 2016, an increase of 35 per cent on 2011 figures.

“This is concerning, and we must continue to implement, support and promote, as a society, comprehensive prevention measures, including the kind of sexual health education and training which HIV Ireland have pioneered and continue to provide,” he said.

The findings of the National HIV Attitudes and Knowledge Survey and People Living with HIV Stigma Survey, carried out by HIV Ireland this year, reveal that there is some work to be done to improve knowledge about the transmission of HIV, particularly amongst younger people, he added.

“The surveys also revealed that for the 4,000 people estimated to be living knowingly with HIV in our country today there is still a degree of stigma - stigma arising from lack of knowledge, and sometimes, we must recognise, from pre-existing forms of prejudice based on a person’s sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, class or whether they are a drug user.

“This stigma takes a deep toll, whether experienced at the hands of friends, family, employers or strangers, takes a deep psychological toll on lives of people living with HIV,” he said.

Mr Higgins said the time before the development of anti-retroviral treatment - was a fearful time “and a time when so many loved ones were lost so suddenly, a time so often remembered with grief, hurt and anger.”

“We, as citizens of Ireland, do owe a duty to all those who lost their lives, a duty to remember and in that remembering, a duty to build a better future.

“Some during that time did act, and today is an occasion to recognise the courage, energy and activism of those campaigners, activism often conducted in the face of ignorance and sometimes hostility,” he said.

He welcomed the announcement that Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), an anti-HIV drug, will be available in Ireland from Monday. The addition of another measure to prevent HIV is an important step forward, he said.

PrEP is a once-daily medication that has been proven to reduce the risk of HIV infection, particularly among members of the gay community, by up to 90 per cent. A generic version of the medication will be available in pharmacies from next week. The cost of PrEP is not covered by the HSE, and currently it can be obtained privately with a doctor’s prescription at a cost of € 400 a month. The cost of the generic drug, made by Teva Pharmaceuticals, is expected to be under € 100 per month.

It was truly sobering, the president said, to recall that over 35 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the beginning of the epidemic, and that over a million people died of such illnesses in 2016.

“At global level there is much which needs to be done, and approached with urgency.”