HIV positive men treated like 'lepers' - TCD study
Gay Irishmen 'shun' friends who admit they've contracted the virus
Irish gay men have reported being shunned by some of their own friends when they reveal that they are HIV positive.
The stigma associated with the virus that activists prayed had been consigned to history is back with a vengeance, a new joint Trinity College Dublin study concludes.
One HIV infected gay man who took part in the study said negativity from his peers was so strong when he told them he had tested positive that he felt it would be preferable to have cancer than HIV.
The disturbing stigmatisation of the disease comes as new cases of HIV infection among gay men in Ireland are at their highest ever.
In 2005 there were 60 newly diagnosed cases. Last year there were 159. Many HIV positive men, faced with odium from their peers, are choosing to keep their illness a secret.
Those who reveal their diagnosis to family, friends and sexual partners say the experience is deeply traumatic.
Some HIV sufferers, who opened up to friends, even found themselves publicly outed on social media and banished from their circle of gay friends.
"Dublin is relatively small and Ireland is relatively small, but Dublin's gay community is smaller still, so when they tell one person it is almost guaranteed that other people are going to find out as well," said Patrick Murphy, lead researcher for The HIV Disclosure Study,
"It's almost a double bind, because there is a pressure to disclose, so you are damned if you do and you are damned if you don't. They are faced with the moral burden of non-disclosure or a backlash if they act responsibly."
The HIV Disclosure Study is supported and facilitated by the Guide Clinic at St James's Hospital and by Trinity College Dublin.
Researchers interviewed HIV positive men about the impact of revealing their condition.
Some reported being treated like "lepers" or "criminals" after it became known they were HIV positive.
Many of those who took part reported an increase in 'slut shaming' [defaming people about alleged sexual behaviour] against HIV positive gay men, by other members of their community.
"I knew HIV was stigmatised, but I was very surprised at the extent of the stigmatisation that the interviewees were talking about," Mr Murphy said.
"The slut shaming is really about HIV negative people in the gay community trying to distance themselves from HIV. So it's a way of reducing anxiety for themselves and a way of saying 'I'm not so much at risk because I'm gay. As long as I'm not a slut then I'm not at risk of HIV infection,'" Patrick Murphy explained.
Some study participants admitted that they have concealed their HIV from sexual partners. Others reported that negative reactions from potential sexual partners in the past has made them less likely to reveal the information to future partners.
"It's really important to note that disclosure is not about reducing transmission, because the people I interviewed and most people living in this country with HIV would be on Antiretroviral medication, which means that they would be sexually non-infectious, so there's really no risk to their partners. But there is a perceived risk," Mr Murphy explained.
"When I talk to people in the gay community about the research that I'm doing, HIV negative people, about disclosure and how difficult it is and how a lot of people don't disclose, there is often a very shocked reaction, because there is this assumption that people will tell you that they have HIV and that's just not the case," Mr Murphy explained.
Despite the low risk of HIV positive people who are receiving treatment for the illness passing it on through sexual intercourse, the respondents were all practising safe sex.
"Everybody I spoke to were all really conscious about using condoms and making sure that whatever sex they had was safe for their partners," Patrick explained. "That is something that appears to be almost universal with people with HIV. Once they get the HIV diagnosis, they become really cautious about making sure that nobody else gets infected.
"Most HIV infections occur when people don't know their HIV status. So the highest-risk sex is when you have two people who both think they are HIV negative and one of them is not."
The Man2Man Report which in 2010 surveyed 2,610 gay men living in Ireland and Northern Ireland, found four in 10 had never been tested for HIV.
Last year 344 were newly diagnosed with HIV here - 86 of them female. The highest proportion, 46.2pc, of new diagnoses were among gay men. Heterosexuals accounted for 38.1pc of new diagnoses.
There is no law in Ireland which requires HIV positive people to disclose their medical status to sexual partners.
The HIV Disclosure Study will remain open to participants until the end of August. The results will be presented at the European Health Psychology Society's conference in Austria. See www.thehivdisclosurestudy.com for more details.