Over half of people living with HIV in Ireland are comfortable sharing their HIV status with others, new research has found.
According to the findings, 56% of HIV-positive people are comfortable sharing this information compared to 41% in the US, 28% in Europe and just 9% in Russia.
The research, which was launched to coincide with World AIDS Day (December 1), forms part of a new awareness campaign that is supported by HIV Ireland and Sexual Health West. The campaign aims to raise awareness of the challenges faced by people with HIV and to empower them to be more proactive in the management of the condition.
It also aims to reduce the stigma and discrimination that can often be associated with the condition.
The research found that while 56% of people with HIV are comfortable sharing this information, there is a large gender gap - with 72% of females comfortable with sharing this information compared to 33% of men.
Among those who would not be comfortable sharing their HIV status, the main reasons given were:
-They were worried that they would be seen or treated differently (64%)
-They were worried it might affect friendships (62%)
-They were worried that they might lose their job (48%).
When it came to healthcare, 74% of people with HIV agreed that there is room for improvement when it comes to how the condition is medically managed. However, on a positive note, 66% said that they feel comfortable discussing concerns about their emotional wellbeing with their healthcare provider.
According to Prof Clíona Ní Cheallaigh, a consultant in infectious diseases and general medicine in St James's Hospital in Dublin, HIV has been a "great success story".
"Antiretroviral treatment (ART) means that people can expect to live long and healthy lives. People with undetectable viral loads can be reassured that they can't transmit the virus - undetectable is untransmittable," she explained.
She described it as "wonderful to see" that over half of people living with HIV are comfortable sharing their status, but she said it would be "even better if everyone living with HIV felt safe from discrimination and able to talk about their HIV".
"It's really important that people living with HIV feel able to talk about issues affecting them with their HIV nurse, doctor or other healthcare staff. It's also vital that healthcare staff working with them are trained and able to address issues that may affect their health, including mental health, stigma and social issues," Prof Ní Cheallaigh said.
Liz Martin was diagnosed with HIV in 1991 when she was 24 years old.
"I was a single parent with four small children, living in the West of Ireland and totally isolated. I knew no one. It is hard to believe that's almost 30 years ago. At the time, information about the condition was limited and there were no HIV clinics in Galway, but thankfully, things have changed.
"There's more information and supports available to the HIV community now. I want to encourage others living with HIV to reach out and seek support, especially at this difficult time of increased social distancing," she said.
Ms Martin encouraged people to speak to their healthcare provider about how they are feeling physically and mentally.
"Please don't feel alone, or that your voice doesn't matter - it does. Speak to your doctor, there's nothing they haven't heard before and they're there to help. And, if you're comfortable, speak to your friends and family about your worries or concerns. We can only change the conversation around HIV through open and ongoing communication," she insisted.
According to Stephen O'Hare, CEO of HIV Ireland, these findings indicate "a high degree of resilience and optimism" among many people with HIV in Ireland.
"There remains, however, marked differences in reported experiences of living with HIV relating to gender and sexual orientation. In order to build successfully on these findings, we must listen closely and ensure that the voices of people with HIV are prominent in decisions about care.
"We must acknowledge the validity of these experiences and redouble our efforts to tackle stigma and discrimination relating to HIV in all areas of society," Mr O'Hare said.
The research was conducted by GSK and ViiV Healthcare. It is the second in the Positive Perspectives series - an ongoing international survey of over 2,100 people living with HIV in 24 countries, including 50 in Ireland.
For more information on HIV Ireland, click here. For more information on Sexual Health West, click here.
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