One of the country’s largest providers of an HIV preventive drug has closed indefinitely as the Covid-19 pandemic continues.
The Gay Men’s Health Service (GMHS) advised all of its current users to make appointments with alternative PrEP (Pre Exposure Prophylaxis) services yesterday. If taken daily, PrEP greatly reduces the chances of a HIV negative person from getting the virus.
Previously, the clinic had also shut down its STI testing and treatment services. Executive Director of HIV Ireland Stephen O’Hare said the temporary closure of the GMHS and clinics like it across the country could affect public health.
“Just like Covid, HIV and STIs are detected by testing,” he said. “Where there is a restriction on testing, it will have an impact on transmission rates.”
“That is something we are very concerned about because where the services are limited, you cannot determine that you are detecting every case of HIV that you would have otherwise.”
These clinics have had to either close or reduce their services as a result of the current pandemic; Whether that be for Covid safety guidelines, or a building needing to be repurposed.
Mr O’Hare said that they are trying to see when the GMHS - which serviced around 11,000 people last year - will be able to resume its normal services.
“We are seeking a response from the HSE as to what they plan to do,” he said.
He added that these services are particularly vital now, as in recent years the HIV rate in Ireland has increased.
“There is concern where the prevention options are more limited because of restrictions that will have a negative impact,” he said.
Back in 2018, there were 523 HIV diagnoses in Ireland, which is a rate of 11 per 100,000 population. Of those, men who have sex with men were the group most affected, accounting for 56pc of the total transmissions that year.
Last November, the government started a new initiative to address this issue which allows some groups of people to be eligible for free PrEP. Men, and trans women who have sex with men, are included in that - provided they meet certain critera.
While more limited now, PrEP and HIV services are still available in some places, with Mr O’Hare noting that rapid HIV tests are done every Wednesday and Saturday in HIV Ireland’s offices.
“Formally we used to do the rapid testing in social settings like Outhouse and Pantibar, but because of the restrictions on venues we had to bring the testing back here.”