When bemused doctors diagnosed the first HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) patients in 1983 confused scientists and a panicked public scrambled to understand a disease that appeared to be an unstoppable, incurable death sentence to anyone whose path it crossed. The disease was isolated by United States scientists investigating a disturbing spike in cancers and pneumonia in New York and Los Angeles areas which appeared to have no obvious cause. The roots of HIV have since been traced back to West Africa in the 1950s, leading scientists early on to postulate that thousands of patients the world over had been unknowingly living with and unwittingly spreading the disease for up to three decades.

Naturally, this revelatory bombshell led to widespread hysteria, including this now infamous Australian public information advert being televised in 1987. It also led to vulnerable societal groupings especially susceptible to the disease – gay men and drug addicts – being further marginalised as a misinformed public clamoured for information that either didn’t exist or can now be dismissed as conjecture.

Our collective knowledge of HIV has been enriched markedly since the 1980s as fresh research begot improved treatments, and new communications technologies enabled scientists to disseminate pertinent information through media not developed thirty years ago. Progress has meant that a diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, and that the developed world has access to the most up-to-date research at the touch of a button.

HIV patients who are diagnosed today can expect to enjoy a lifespan equal to a that of a HIV negative provided they take regular medication – in many cases this is just one daily pill; and transmission is virtually impossible once this regiment is adhered to.

Progress means patients’ lives won’t be irrevocably altered, as was the case 20 years ago, Adam Shanley, Manager at HIV Ireland’s Rapid HIV Testing Programme aimed at MSM (men who have sex with men) pointed out. “HIV isn’t the burden it was 20 years ago. The old adverts depicting death and the burden that comes with HIV is no longer relevant. We see people diagnosed today able to live a normal lifespan with no real impact on their lives other than having to take one pill a day.”

Credit: NIAID Flikr

Shanley added that living with HIV could be viewed as being less burdensome than with other chronic conditions such as diabetes, which require constant monitoring and lifestyle augmentations. “With HIV, you might need a check up every three months or so, but not much other than that. Knowing your HIV status is important as it enables you to deal with the disease on your terms rather than its.”

Ireland has been slow to reap the benefits yielded by two decades of frantic scientific progress. Last year, 518 new HIV diagnoses were recorded in Ireland, the highest number on record and double the number of any other European country. Irish HIV diagnoses have returned to their pre-millennium peak, while countries on the continent present historic lows.

An area Ireland falls short on treatment is the public provision of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). While some countries such as the South Africa and the United Kingdom  – where PrEP can be acquired through the National Health Service – have already introduced PrEP to the public, Ireland’s health service has lagged behind. Plans to introduce PrEP were revealed last year though, with high hopes that a programme will be rolled out imminently. Shanley welcomed Minister for Health Simon Harris’ commitment to rolling out a PrEP programme for Ireland in 2019. “We’ve seen similar programmes in other countries and we’re very encouraged by the Minister’s announcement.”

Shanley stressed the impetus of regular testing for sexually active adults. Rapid testing makes this easier than ever, he points out. “All it takes is a pin-prick and you can receive a provisional result in minutes.” More details on rapid testing, how you can acquire a testing kit and what you can expect when you test can be found here.

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