Stigma still surrounds a HIV diagnosis

Brendan Fernando Kelly Palenque

Former rugby player Gareth Thomas revealed that he’s living with HIV after being blackmailed by tabloids. 

Of course it’s very brave of Thomas to come forward about his current health status – but ultimately, he never should have been put in that position in the first place. The real story is why his status is considered newsworthy at all.

When asked if he would have eventually disclosed that he is HIV positive, Thomas told BBC radio: “Absolutely not. It’s got nothing to do with anyone else.” And he’s right.

But certain journalists still believe it’s worth obtaining this private information without consent. They represent the very worst of the industry – willing to do absolutely anything for a story.

It’s not just newsworthy because it’s private information though – if Thomas had kept it to himself that he had asthma no one would have cared. The fact remains that a stigma is still attached to having HIV.

Even more recently than Thomas, Jonathan Van Ness of Queer Eye fame disclosed that he was HIV positive (this time without being threatened). Again, this was considered newsworthy because we live in a society which still doesn’t understand HIV.

People with HIV on the proper medication can and do live totally normal lives – and they can also have normal sex lives. In an attempt to make this more well known, the U = U campaign was started.

Essentially it’s shorthand for undetectable = untransmittable. HIV Ireland is pretty clear about what this means: “If you are HIV-positive with an undetectable viral load and are having sex without condoms with someone who is HIV-negative, the risk of passing on HIV is zero.

Of course there a couple of things that are important to keep in mind though. People with HIV usually only become undetectable after taking the proper medication for six months. And it goes without saying that just because someone can’t pass on HIV doesn’t mean they shouldn’t wear a condom – there are a slew of other STIs which you can contract.

There also exists medication for HIV negative people to decrease their chance of contracting the virus. Pre exposure prophylaxis – or PrEP is a drug which, if taken once a day can decrease someones chance of contracting the HIV virus by more than 90 per cent.

The generic brand of PrEP can be purchased for €100 and lasts a month, but you need a prescription to purchase it. A PrEP monitoring clinic is offered every Thursday in the Gay Men’s Health Service in the Meath Primary Care Centre. SpunOut also provides a comprehensive list of free STI clinics in Dublin – which needless to say, is ideal for students.

The stigma around HIV and STIs in general must be broken down. According to statistics from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, the number of people with HIV rose by 8 per cent last year.

If this figure is to go down everyone needs to be educated on how to prevent HIV and just as importantly – how to treat it. Stay safe and get tested.

Brendan Fernando Kelly Palenque

Image Credit: James Wilton