Most gay and bisexual men living with HIV in Ireland are getting effective treatment, have an undetectable viral load and cannot transmit the virus, a new report has revealed.
However almost one in four men who have sex with men has never tested for HIV, according to the findings.
The European Men who have Sex with Men Internet Survey 2017 (EMIS-2017 Ireland) report included information from 2,083 gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. All had taken part in an online survey about their sexual health and wellbeing.
The report revealed that 7% of participants were living with HIV and among these, 94% were being treated for it, while 97% had an undetectable viral loa d.
"This is very welcome as it shows that the vast majority of men who reported that they are living with HIV are on effective treatment. In Ireland, it is recommended that everyone diagnosed with HIV starts treatment as soon as possible. Effective and timely HIV treatment keeps people with HIV healthy and prevents transmission to others," explained Dr Fiona Lyons, a consultant in genitourinary and HIV medicine at St James's Hospital, Dublin.
According to Mick Quinlan of the Gay Health Network (GHN), the message that undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U) is becoming more prevalent and men who have sex with men can now feel confident that if they are having their HIV monitored and their viral load is undetectable, "they will not pass HIV on to their sexual partner".
"However, just over 40% of all respondents in this study were not aware of this important information. This highlights the need for targeted health promotion messaging, to arrange for people who have been diagnosed with HIV to take up treatment as soon as possible, and for men who have sex with men to test for HIV and to have regular testing if at risk of acquiring HIV," Mr Quinlan said.
The report also noted that while the prevalence of testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) has been increasing in recent years. Some 23% of men who have sex with men have never tested for HIV and this figure rises to 47% among those aged between 17 and 24.
"A sustained focus on reducing HIV stigma, on highlighting the benefits to the individual and the population in knowing your HIV status, and on expanding options and opportunities for testing are all required," commented the research's principal investigator, Dr Derval Igoe, of the HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre.
Meanwhile, the report also looked at other issues facing men who have sex with men, including alcohol and drug use. It found that 29% of participants were possibly dependent on alcohol, while 41% used at least one illicit drug, with cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy the most popular choices.
When it came to mental health, around one in four displayed signs of anxiety, while one in five displayed signs of depression. Furthermore, almost 3% said they had been bothered by suicidal or self-harm thoughts almost every day over the last two weeks.
This survey was part of an international online behavioural surveillance survey, which was designed to generate data that would be useful for planning HIV and STI prevention and care programmes. The Irish report was led by the HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre in partnership with the Gay Health Network, and was supported by the HSE Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme.
The report can be viewed here.
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