Lifting of Covid restrictions a contributing factor to transmission
More than 800 cases of HIV have been notified in Ireland this year, the highest figure on record and more than double the number last year.
Statistics published by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) indicate that, as of December 21, 840 cases of HIV had been notified in 2022.
Records show that for the same period last year, just 388 cases were notified. There was a total of 401 cases in 2021.
The HPSC records newly notified cases as those who have recently acquired the virus, together with people already living with the virus and transferring their care to Ireland.
The majority of HIV diagnoses in 2022 are in people who were previously diagnosed outside Ireland. The majority of diagnoses are in people aged between 25 and 44 years.
HIV – human immunodeficiency virus – attacks the immune system by infecting a type of white blood cell that helps us fight off infections.
Around 7,500 people are estimated to be living with HIV in Ireland.
Stephen O’Hare, executive director of HIV Ireland said the increase in socialisation since the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions was a contributing factor to the “steep” rise in cases.
“We can surmise that this year we’re going to see an increase in new transmission. We’re certainly going to see an increase in newly notified cases and probably an increase in cases of unknown diagnosis,” he said.
“Some of that is from Covid and the restrictions on testing in 2020 and 2021. Before Covid, we were seeing a rise in the number of cases year on year, up until about 530 in 2019 and then they started to fall.
“A lot of that was driven by the fact that there was less testing and that brought down the numbers but also there was probably less transmission because people didn’t have the opportunity to socialise.”
Mr O’Hare said gay and bisexual men were disproportionately affected by HIV and account for roughly 55pc of newly notified cases.
The second most commonly affected group, heterosexual females, account for 29pc.
“Unfortunately, there is still a very significant stigma and shame attached to HIV, including in Ireland,” he said.
“The impact that stigma can have – first of all, on people who live with HIV – means that people will very often not share their status or hide the fact that they’re living with HIV because they fear the repercussions that will have on employment and on relationships. Then there is self-stigma. People feel their own personal sense of shame and that can be cultural as well if there is a strong historical stigma attached to it.
“It absolutely doesn’t need to be this way because there has been a revolution in the treatment of HIV in the last 20 years. So, a person who is living with HIV and a person who is on effective treatment, which is the vast majority of people living with HIV in Ireland, can attain what’s called an undetectable viral load.
“If you’re undetectable, you cannot pass on HIV to a sexual partner. That’s the beauty, I suppose, of the treatment that’s available.”
In October, the HSE launched SH24, a free online service which provides the option to test for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) at home.
Those aged 17 and older can order an STI test kit online, which is delivered to their home by post. Users then return the samples in the pre-paid envelope provided.
It is a discreet and completely confidential service and results are sent by phone.
In addition, PrEP is a medication that can be taken as a pill before and after possible exposure to HIV. This drug can prevent infection.
Studies have shown PrEP to be safe and highly effective. It is available free in Ireland to anyone who has a substantial risk of acquiring HIV.
Mr O’Hare said Ireland had committed to ending new transmission of HIV by 2030.
He said broader access to PrEP and PEP – a post exposure medicine – was vital to achieve this goal.
“I do think 2022 has been a bit of an anomaly in terms of the newly notified cases. I would hope we won’t see as many in 2023,” he said.