The Irish Aids Crisis: A 35 year long pandemic

Aoife Noonan

In 1985, four years after the first case of HIV was discovered, then-president of the United States Ronald Reagan acknowledged the disease for the first time.

In 1985, four long years after the first case of HIV was discovered, condoms were legalised in Ireland for the first time.

It’s A Sin on Channel Four, a program covering the AIDS crisis in London, was set eighteen years before I was born. But the landscape shown is more of a reflection than a recollection. Years after the discovery of AIDS, the Irish Government is still fatally incompetent when it comes to treatment of the condition, on a systemic, educational, and operational level.

In March, when most of the country was still coming to terms with the idea of a lockdown, the Gay Men’s Health Service (GMHS) in Dublin was shut down.

The government closed the facility, which provided STI testing and treatment among many other services, quietly, with little available information on where to turn in crisis.

The HSE stated that there would be a drop-in clinic available on Mondays, but “places are limited and so service users are seen on a first-come-first-served basis.

The clinic opens at 1.30pm and will close at 4pm or when all places have been filled.” Before the pandemic, the clinic saw more than 235 patient visits a week, over 11,600 a year and was having to turn away 1,700 more. This response is in no way adequate.

The clinic provides full STI & HIV screening and treatment. They provide Hepatitis and HPV vaccines. They provide prescriptions for Pre-exposure prophylaxis, also known as PrEP, a medication that prevents infection from AIDS.

They also provide Post-exposure prophylaxis, also known as PEP, a preventative medicine to stop AIDS from occurring (almost like the morning-after pill).

They provide condoms, and counselling, a community, and a vital resource, and they provide it all free of charge, and most remarkably, free of stigma.

Free of the stigma that results in 87 per cent in the population not knowing these treatments exist. Free of the stigma that meant I learned nothing about PrEP, PEP, or HIV in general during my own sex education in school. Free of the stigma that means we still don’t know exactly how many Irish people died of AIDs in the 1980s. Free of the stigma that means we don’t know exactly how many Irish people thrive, with AIDS today.

U=U refers to a medical treatment that means that the risk of HIV being passed on through sex is zero. It means that the chances of passing AIDS on through pregnancy are 0.1 per cent.

It means that people with AIDS can live every aspect of their life without fear. So even if someone is not taking PrEP, even if they are unable to take PEP, they can still live a near normal life thanks to these miraculous treatments.

Unfortunately, since the GMHS closure, these treatments have become unavailable. The Government’s refusal to reopen the service, the lack of information they provide on the virus, and the stigma infecting the Irish public are all reasons why we have almost double the number of cases than the European average.

Last year, 476 cases of HIV were discovered in Ireland. In 2018, 31% of cases were found in heterosexual people. AIDS doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t have a prejudice, and unlike the Irish Government, it’s fatally competent at its job.

The GMHS needs to be reopened. Information on PrEP, PEP, U=U and more STI treatments needs to be integrated into the educational syllabus.

The Irish public needs to move into the 21st century, and face the issues affecting it. The sin is not in the virus, but is our ignorance and refusal to treat it.

Aoife Noonan

Image Credit: Gay Community News