Speeches

Speech by Ms. Áine Brady T.D. , Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children – HIV in Ireland 2010: The Way Forward

Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning. As Chair of the National AIDS Strategy Committee, I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to address this seminar organised by the Dublin AIDS Alliance and Dublin City Council’s Social Inclusion Unit on the subject of HIV in Ireland 2010: The Way Forward.

HIV in Ireland

The HIV virus was first identified in Ireland as far back as 1983 and the first deaths from AIDS were recorded here in 1985. At that time, a particular problem existed in relation to the spread of HIV amongst intravenous drug users (IDUs) and between men who have sex with men (MSM). While these groups continue to be at risk of infection, heterosexual contact is now the biggest single cause of HIV infection among those newly diagnosed with HIV in Ireland.

Universal antenatal testing for HIV has been routinely available in the majority of maternity hospitals in Ireland since 1999; this has been found to reduce perinatal transmission rates as it identifies women who are HIV positive at an early stage in pregnancy, allowing for treatment.

Treatment

Over €7m in additional development funding has been provided to the health services since 1997 to address the treatment of HIV and STIs, resulting in enhanced services in the area. There are currently ten consultants based in Dublin, located in St. James’s, The Mater, Beaumont, Temple Street Children’s Hospital and Our Lady’s Hospital for Children, and one each in Cork and Galway University Hospitals. Irish policy is that appropriate treatment is made available free of charge to all who test positive for HIV at the various statutory centres that provide HIV and STI services.

HIV Statistics

As I’m sure you are all aware, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) released the 2009 data on newly diagnosed HIV infections in Ireland on Irish AIDS Day 2010 in June. The report showed that the 2009 total of 395 newly diagnosed cases was marginally down from 2008, when 405 new HIV diagnoses were reported.

Although there was an overall decrease in new HIV cases, the HPSC highlighted the number of men who have sex with men who were newly diagnosed. This number rose from 97 in 2008 to 138 in 2009. This by far is the highest ever reported in this category and represents a 42% increase over 2008 which had previously been the highest number! Notably, 35% of these were in young men under 30 and, worryingly, this seems to be an emerging trend in Western Countries. The increase is a matter of concern as this group had responded well to awareness and prevention campaigns in the past.

Therefore, in spite of all the good work that has been done and all that has been achieved, the message remains very clear – we must remain vigilant and not lapse into complacency when it comes to HIV prevention!

While the prevention message was successful in the past and did reach a large proportion of the population, the statistics are continuing to show that more and more people are either not hearing or choosing to disregard the message and are engaging in risky behaviours. It is essential that we identify the reasons for this and deliver targeted prevention programs in order to address this situation.

NASC Education and Prevention Plan 2008–2012

Preventing HIV and AIDS and promoting safer sexual practices have been priorities for the health and education sector for some time and clearly this effort must continue into the future.

The National AIDS Strategy Committee Education and Prevention sub-committee launched its Education and Prevention Plan 2008 – 2012 to provide a roadmap for HIV and AIDS Education and Prevention. Seven population groups at particular risk of HIV were identified in the Plan, which identified six areas for action, including preventing new infections and addressing stigma and discrimination. Determining how the various recommendations might be best advanced in the current challenging economic climate will present a significant challenge to the members of the Education and Prevention Sub-Committee, and I hope that the discussion today at the seminar will be useful in this regard.

The health sector continues to invest in delivering safer sex messages to young people through, for example, direct advertising and marketing campaigns. These campaigns have become a key part of the sexual health promotion infrastructure in Ireland and over the past 15 years have continued to reinforce the core message of condom use and early testing. Relationships and Sexuality Education programmes are another component of the prevention strategy. The health and education sectors work in partnership with NGOs to support schools in the delivery of Relationships and Sexuality Education programmes as part of the national curriculum. The programmes aim to meet the needs of young people, with more specifically designed programmes for young people most at risk.

Stigma

Notwithstanding the importance of the 2009 HIV figures, I realise that statistics tend to take away from the fact that those affected by HIV are people and not statistics. People who are not only living with HIV but people who are subject to HIV related stigma and discrimination and who may experience exclusion. However, addressing this stigma and discrimination is proving to be quite a challenge both here and internationally and it is essential that it remains on the agenda going forward.

As part of the Stamp Out Stigma campaign, research on ‘HIV Related Stigma and Discrimination in Ireland Today’ was published in September 2008. The report found that while legal protection exists to prevent discrimination of people with HIV, a large proportion of HIV positive respondents still indicated that they were subject to discrimination and to stigma. In addition, while many service providers knew it is illegal to discriminate, many did not have policies or practices in place to prevent this from happening. National AIDS Strategy Committee

As I mentioned previously, I chair the National AIDS Strategy Committee, which is continuing to work to address some of the issues that will be discussed here today, in particular the need to combat stigma and discrimination. I wish to acknowledge the continued representation and contribution of people living with HIV on the NASC and its sub-committees as we work to oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the National AIDS Strategy 2000, as well as the emerging issues that arise from time to time.

Conclusion

Looking at the programme for today, I know that there will be valuable opportunities to discuss issues and raise awareness around prevention, education and stigma to ensure that the difficulties associated with living with HIV are not overlooked but remain on the social and political agenda. I trust that the outcomes of the event will be productive and informative and will help to facilitate finding a way forward in promoting equality for people living with HIV.

I wish to congratulate Dublin AIDS Alliance and the Social Inclusion Unit of Dublin City Council for organising the event, and would like to conclude by wishing you all a very successful day.

Thank you.