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Sunday 11 December 2016

Worrying new figures reveal number of people diagnosed with HIV jumps 25pc

'When you’re living with HIV, you live in this deafening silence' - Former Mr Gay Ireland winner Robbie Lawlor

Eugene Masterson

Published 05/04/2016 | 14:25

Robbie Lawlor, former Mr Gay Ireland (Pic:Eugene Masterson)
Robbie Lawlor, former Mr Gay Ireland (Pic:Eugene Masterson)

Worrying new figures reveal that the number of people diagnosed with HIV in Ireland last year jumped up almost 25pc.

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Independent.ie can reveal that 498 people were diagnosed with HIV in Ireland last year.

This is nearly a 25 per cent jump on 2014 year’s figure of 377, with the highest prior figure being 404 in 2008. Almost half of those affected are gay or bisexual men, while the others are heterosexuals and a small number of intravenous drugs users.

There is no breakdown yet of how the 498 people who were confirmed HIV positive in 2015 attained the disease.

But the previous year showed that 377 were diagnosed HIV positive.

These consisted of 183 (49pc) of men who had sex with men, 183 (33pc heterosexual), 27 (17pc) from needle injecting by drug use, 2 (0.5pc) mother to child transmission while 40 (11pc) were ‘unknown’.

Mr Gay Ireland 2013, Robbie Lawlor Pictures: Louise Hannon / VIPIRELAND.COM
Mr Gay Ireland 2013, Robbie Lawlor Pictures: Louise Hannon / VIPIRELAND.COM

Some 73pc were male and 27pc female, while 36pc were Irish born, 53pc from abroad and nearly 10pc unknown. The average age was 33. 

Nearly 8,000 people are now living with HIV in Ireland and one of those is Dubliner Robbie Lawlor (25).

Brave Robbie – who is a former winner of Mr Gay Ireland – spoke today to the Sunday World for the first time about his shock in finding out he had the disease, his traumatic struggle and how no one with HIV has anything to fear.

Ever since he was aged 12 Robbie had hoped to one day work with animals in Australia.

He underwent a four-year course in Zoology in UCD and saved up money from a part-time job to fund his trip Down Under.

But four years ago, at the age of 21, his life changed dramatically when he went for his first STI screening.

“I was sexually active since I was 18,” he explains. “So that was three and a half years without being checked. I went with my friend and initially everything was fine.

“I got a call back three weeks later and they said ‘Robbie will you come back in, your gonorrhoea tests came back inconclusive’ and in my naivety I went in not thinking anything about it, but I was mortified about going in.”

He made a couple of light-hearted comments to try and ease the situation but his doctor was quite serious and told him to sit down.

“So she said ‘Robbie, last time you came here you did a HIV test and I said ‘yeah’. She said ‘it came back positive’.

“It’s kind of hard for me to convey how anyone would feel about getting that diagnosis, but for me I can literally put my hands up and say that I was probably the most ignorant person in Ireland, because I actually didn’t know HIV even existed in Ireland,” he reflects.

“I didn’t know anyone living with HIV, I just never heard about it.  It was sensationalised in the media, or outside Ireland,” he said.

“So the very first thing I asked her without even thinking was ‘can I go to Australia?’ and she told me that although I could go for a year or two, legally I couldn’t get a residency for Australia because of my HIV status.

“As you can imagine, those two seconds of that diagnosis, everything I had worked for and wanted all my life, was literally just taken away from me and ripped apart. It was the same for Canada and New Zealand, all the places I wanted to go to.

“I cried for about five minutes. When I composed myself, I asked the consultant was I going to survive.  I had heard AIDS could kill people. Even during my diagnosis I didn’t know the difference between HIV and AIDS.

“So the consultant said to me that although my immune system was quite low, if I started taking medication my immune system would build back up and I would live a long healthy life. “

The virus made Robbie tired all the time and he lost weight.

A social worker helped Robbie cope with his diagnosis, and his mother also attended clinics and meetings with him.

He was put on his first drug and was told there may be side effects. But nothing prepared him for what happened when he took his first pill one night at 10pm.

“By 11 o’clock I was high. I was dancing, singing, my senses exploded, my vision just went crazy,” he remembers. “The next morning I was in bits and I wasn’t co-ordinated. I had a density over my brain (I like to call brain fog) and my life was in slow motion. So it was terrible.”

His mother, who has four other children (including a gay daughter and three sons), persuaded him to go back to the clinic.

They put him on a new course of tablets which are now working perfectly, he is in perfect physique and his mental health is great.

Robbie, from Clondalkin, became involved in a group called MeetUp Plus Friends, which organises events for people with HIV, such as yoga, cinema outings or nights out.  He is also a nominated person for newly diagnosed people with HIV to go to share a coffee or drink with.

“When you’re living with HIV, you live in this deafening silence.  No one can come out. And that’s even with the stigma within the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community as well. No one ever talks about it.”

He is now doing a Masters degree in Sexual Studies in DCU and is also involved in Youth Stop AIDS, which is a youth-led movement campaigning for a world without AIDS.

“HIV no longer has to be death sentence. However, the medication simply isn’t available worldwide because pharmaceutical companies have the prices too high.

“Our vision is to have zero HIV infections, zero stigma/discrimination and zero AIDS related deaths by 2030. Every government made a pact to aspire to this vision and it’s up to governments accountable to uphold these, which they’re not doing in Ireland.”

Health Minister Leo Varadkar has commissioned Ireland’s first sexual health strategy to be launched shortly and a World Health Organisation meeting next month will address the issue.

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