New campaign aims to erode stigma associated with HIV

Research launched recently ahead of World AIDS Day in December revealed that 56 per cent of respondents in Ireland living with HIV are comfortable sharing their HIV status with others. This is a significantly higher proportion than North America (41 per cent), the UK (37 per cent), Europe (28 per cent) or Russia (9 per cent). The research, which is the second in the Positive Perspectives series, details the perceptions of 50 Irish people living with the condition. The Irish results were launched during a recent webinar attended by Minister of State for Health Promotion, Frank Feighan TD.

The research forms part of a campaign supported by HIV Ireland and Sexual Health West, which aims to raise awareness of HIV and highlight the key quality of life challenges and emerging needs of people in Ireland living with the condition. The purpose of the campaign is to empower people living with HIV to take a more proactive approach to managing their condition by engaging with their healthcare practitioner (HCP), while also increasing public awareness and understanding of HIV to help mitigate stigma and discrimination associated with the condition.

Minister Feighan said: “World AIDS Day provides us with an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come in our response to HIV/AIDS and to re-evaluate what more we can do to improve prevention and support for those living with HIV. This research highlights that while we have made much progress, there is still work to be done to increase awareness and reduce stigma.

This year’s theme for World AIDS Day of ‘Global Solidarity, Shared Responsibility’ is particularly fitting, as the HIV community has faced the new challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic this year. I would like to recognise the efforts and partnership between health services, NGOs and community groups in facing this together and reaffirm the Government’s commitment to ending new HIV infections.”

The report, which found that almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of Irish female respondents are comfortable sharing their HIV status, compared to a third of Irish men (33 per cent), also highlighted reasons why many respondents choose not to share their HIV status, including:

▶ Worried that they would be seen or treated differently (64 per cent).
▶ Worried it might affect friendships (62 per cent).
▶ Worried that they might lose their job (48 per cent).

Impact

When asked about the overall impact that living with HIV has had on their life, 58 per cent of respondents from Ireland expressed feeling positive, markedly more than the European average of 22 per cent. This figure rose significantly among women (72 per cent), compared to just 38 per cent of men. With regard to healthcare, a high proportion of respondents (74 per cent) agreed that there is room for improving the way their HIV is managed medically — a view shared by most of the women surveyed (86 per cent).

In addition, 66 per cent of respondents said they feel comfortable discussing concerns about their emotional wellbeing with their healthcare provider. Prof Clíona Ní Cheallaigh, Associate Professor in the Department of Clinical Medicine, TCD, and a Consultant in Infectious Diseases and General Medicine in St James’s Hospital, Dublin, commented:

“HIV is a great success story — antiretroviral treatment (ART) means that people can expect to live long and healthy lives. People with undetectable viral loads can be reassured that they can’t transmit the virus — undetectable is untransmittable, U=U. It is wonderful to see that more than half of people living with HIV (PLWHIV) feel comfortable in sharing their HIV status, but it would be even better if everyone living with HIV felt safe from discrimination and able to talk about their HIV.

It’s really important that PLWHIV feel able to talk about issues affecting them with their HIV nurse, doctor or other healthcare staff. It’s also vital that healthcare staff working with PLWHIV are trained and able to address issues that may affect their health, including mental health, stigma and social issues.”

HIV is a great success story — antiretroviral treatment means that people can expect to live long and healthy lives

Optimism

Mr Stephen O’Hare, CEO of HIV Ireland, added: “The findings from this research indicates a high degree of resilience and optimism among many PLWHIV in Ireland. There remains, however, marked differences in reported experiences of living with HIV relating to gender and sexual orientation.

In order to build successfully on these findings, we must listen closely and ensure that the voices of PLWHIV are prominent in decisions about care. We must acknowledge the validity of these experiences and redouble our efforts to tackle stigma and discrimination relating to HIV in all areas of society.”

Mr Joe McDonagh, CEO of Sexual Health West, concluded: “The Positive Perspectives study results provide a valuable insight into the challenges people living with HIV in Ireland face. While there are many positives to take from the results, they highlight key areas where more work is needed to tackle stigma and to empower people to proactively manage their condition.

Sexual Health West supports people living with HIV across the West of Ireland and we are aware that rural isolation can be a factor when deciding to share a positive HIV diagnosis.

“Additionally, in these tough times of Covid-19, it is essential that people have access to social support when they need it and we remind patients that the Sexual Health West support services team are there to help and support people across the region.”

The research was conducted by GSK and ViiV Healthcare.