By Maurice Fitzmaurice
16:28, 10 FEB 2016
Positive Life calls for changes in people’s attitudes to condition and for more testing
An estimated 200 could be living with HIV in Northern Ireland without even knowing, research has revealed.
The figure emerged as the region’s only dedicated HIV charity, Positive Life, called on “people to take charge of their sexual health in response to the increasing prevalence of HIV in Northern Ireland”.
As part of Sexual Health Awareness Week in Northern Ireland, Positive Life says there has been a significant spike in HIV diagnoses in the region.
They say there is an estimated 809 people “living with an HIV diagnosis” in the region and that there has been a 46% increase in diagnoses since 2014, with 94 new diagnoses that year. The figure of 200 being unaware of their status came from Public Health England research.
The charity also says the perception still exists that HIV is only an issue for gay men, but statistics show it is a significant problem among the heterosexual community. More education is needed to tackle these problems, the charity’s CEO Jacquie Richardson says.
She added: “Positive Life as Northern Ireland’s only dedicated HIV charity aim to ultimately prevent the increase in HIV infection through training, education and raising awareness. Equal to this is our pledge to provide support services, advice and signposting for people living with and affected by HIV.
“Sexual Health Awareness Week is an important opportunity for Positive Life to communicate to Northern Ireland the necessity of taking ownership of our sexual health by practicing safer sex and participating in early HIV testing. The reality of the increasing prevalence of HIV in Northern Ireland is alarming.”
The charity’s research also found that there is an “upward trend in the total number of tests being carried out”, with 88% of 35,814 tests in 2014 carried out in a traditional GUM (Genito-Urinary Medicine) or hospital setting.
But they added that 51% of these diagnoses “were in the late stages of HIV”. They also say estimates of prevalence from the Public Health Agency show Belfast City Council and Lisburn and Castlereagh Council have the highest rates of HIV in Northern Ireland.
The report added: “There is a culture of late testing for the virus in Northern Ireland. Undetected HIV can develop into AIDS after approximately eight years with life expectancy there after just one to two years. Early testing is key to increase successful prognosis.
“Positive Life recently supported the lifting of the ban on self-testing kits stating that this would likely contribute to an increase in early diagnoses.
“HIV is a treatable infection with many of those diagnosed taking one tablet a day and living in good health with a near normal life expectancy. More importantly, HIV is unlikely to be transmitted during sexual intercourse when a condom is used.”
The charity added that HIV in Northern Ireland is “widely stigmatised and those living with the condition are often disparaged or devalued”.
They added: “Positive Life believes that if stereotypes around HIV were curtailed, HIV testing would increase reducing undiagnosed and late diagnosis of HIV. There is an adopted misconception that HIV is a disease transmitted between two men during sex.
“In Northern Ireland heterosexual transmission has assumed increasing importance since 2003 and now accounts for 41% of new diagnoses made to date in the UK in comparison to 53% of new diagnoses to date amongst male to male transmission in the UK to date.
“In Northern Ireland females account for just under a third of those diagnosed as living with HIV. The majority (82%) of those who received care for HIV in Northern Ireland were of white ethnicity.”
Sexual Health Awareness Week is running until February 15, 2016.