Stigma of HIV akin to abortion, says campaigner Rory O’Neill

National initiative launched to bring free, rapid, HIV testing to gay and bisexual men

‘KnowNow’ Ireland’s first free rapid HIV testing service for gay and bisexual men has been launched. The community based programme will be provided in a variety of non-clinical venues including Pantibar on Capel Street Dublin. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

The stigma around being HIV positive in Ireland is as bad “if not worse” than the stigma around abortion, says gay rights campaigner Rory O’Neill.

Mr O’Neill, also known for his drag-queen persona Panti Bliss, was speaking at the announcement of an initiative to encourage gay and bisexual men to be tested for HIV.

While several public figures had “come out” recently as having had an abortion, how many, he asked, had “come out” as being HIV positive.

“There’s a huge amount of stigma around HIV and even around knowing your HIV status. There’s a huge amount of shaming around it. We are very good at sexual shaming in this country. Absolutely it’s as bad as the shaming around having had an abortion, if not worse.”

“As part of tackling the stigma around HIV we need to make it easier for people to be tested, for people to know their HIV status and to know that being HIV positive is manageable,” Mr O’Neill said.

The KnowNow initiative, from the Gay Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), will bring rapid HIV testing – which can be done in minutes - to gay and bisexual men in the places they meet and socialise.

The most recent figures from the HSE show men who have sex with men (MSM) accounted for 47 per cent of all new diagnoses in the first half of last year. Some 19 per cent of new diagnoses were through heterosexual sex, 12 per cent were intravenous drug-users, 0.5 per cent were mother to child in utero transmission with 22 per cent unknown.

Drop of blood

The age group most at risk is the 25 to 34 year-olds

Adam Shanley,a volunteer who will administer the test, explains it involves a pin-prick to a finger. The drop of blood is then mixed with small amounts of three liquids, one containing anti-bodies and the others to clarify the solution. These react within seconds to produce a number of ‘dots’, in a small well.

“Before the test we’ll have a pre-test discussion with the person just to make sure they are in the right frame-of-mind, and discuss how they’ll react to a positive or a negative result,” said Mr Shanley. While the result is 99.96 per cent accurate, it is not a full blood-test. Anyone who gets a positive result will be referred to St James’s Hospital’s sexual health clinic for a full HIV test.

Mr Shanley stressed HIV was no longer a “death sentence”. The condition is managed with one tablet daily, for the rest of the person’s life. The medication is now so effective that after six months a person might be no longer infectious, though they must continue taking the medication.

The first KnowNow drop-in testing service will be at Pantibar on Capel Street, Dublin on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Further Dublin, Cork and Limerick venues will be announced on KnowNow.ie.

It is a one-year pilot-project and, it is hoped, will rolled out nationally. It is being funded with €150,000 from the Department of Health.