Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Irish Independent: Anxiety over HIV has faded, but the danger has not

By Eilish O'Regan
Monday July 05 2010

In the 1980s it was the known as the "plague" and those infected with the HIV virus faced isolation, stigma and agonising death.

By 2010, HIV has joined that list of illnesses which barely command a few paragraphs in newspapers as the latest statistics on the number of people infected are reported.

We have gone from one extreme to another, but has a dangerous complacency set in? Those on the frontline treating HIV are very concerned.

The most recent report, for 2009, showed a continued rise in the number of gay and bisexual men testing positive for HIV, with the highest ever level of new cases.

The number of new diagnoses among gay men rose from 97 cases in 2008 to 138 in 2009, a 42.3pc increase. Young men under 30 accounted for 35pc of all cases.

Lest people think it is a gay disease, the portion of heterosexual people who were diagnosed with HIV made up 47pc last year -- compared to 46pc in 2007. They accounted for 156 new cases of the disease last year -- 96 female and 60 male.

Significantly, injecting drug users, who used to be high on the list, dropped to 30 of the new cases as the message about not sharing needles got through.

The figures should set off alarm bells but somehow the worrying trends have failed to wake up health authorities or the public.

When the statistics are broken down further the age group of people involved is striking. More than a quarter were 15-29 years of age. Yes, 15-year-olds are testing HIV positive. And 31pc of all age groups are female.

We don't hear much about HIV prevention messages these days and this inevitably puts people off their guard. This is coupled with the belief that HIV is now a treatable disease with drugs available to slow its progression.

Someone in their early 20s diagnosed early with HIV can avail of treatments and look forward to a relatively normal life.

But those with delayed diagnosis and treatment increase the rate of illness and premature death. They are also more likely to pass on the disease.

There are plenty of clinics now available to people to test for HIV, not just those in risk groups.

Doctors too need to be more courageous in suggesting the test for patients who present with symptoms which might indicate possible HIV. Many medics here say they are still seeing too many people diagnosed too late.

If infection is missed at an early stage there may be no symptoms for 10 years, until the patient falls seriously ill with a potentially fatal Aids-related condition.

Last year, two people died here of AIDs and 1,039 cases have been diagnosed since counting began in the late 1980s.

Ireland is not unique in these HIV trends. In 2008 an estimated 33.4m people were living globally with the virus, and in Europe the rate of infection is on the rise also.

The dilemma for authorities is whether to bring back the hard-hitting campaigns or go for a more moderate safe-sex message.

The problem is many countries are doing very little to raise awareness and are diverting resources elsewhere. The swine flu campaign is a good example of where resources were consumed at the expense of others.

Whatever public warning and awareness plan is implemented it needs to be more broad based than previously, not just spotlighting gay men.

The overall cost would be considerably less than treating this expensive infection.

- Eilish O'Regan