One of the North’s leading sexual health professionals has described the continuing rise in HIV cases here as “a worrying trend”.
Dr Fiona Carey, consultant clinical lead in sexual health with the South Eastern Trust, revealed that while some of the busiest genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics in London are reporting a 40% drop in HIV diagnoses due to earlier intervention and improved prevention measures, the number of cases in the North is increasing year on year.
Describing the situation as “a cause for concern”, she said: “Northern Ireland has seen the biggest increase in HIV cases of any part of the UK, with around 100 new cases every year.
“Why are we seeing such big increases compared to other countries? It may be due to increased testing and the availability of GUM clinics and better access to the system. Or it may be that people aren’t afraid to go for testing or it’s not as stigmatised as it once was, but it is still a worrying trend.”
The Public Health Agency’s ‘HIV Surveillance in Northern Ireland 2016’ report reveals that new diagnoses of the virus here increased by a staggering 81% between 2005 and 2015 – in stark contrast with the rest of the UK where the number of new cases fell by 23% over the same period.
According to the report, there were 103 new cases of HIV diagnosed in the North in 2015 – the highest number recorded in any single year.
In 2014/15, new diagnoses of HIV fell in England, Scotland and Wales, but rose by 8% in the North.
Dr Carey, along with nurse consultant Dr Carmel Kelly, was a key player in setting up the South Eastern Trust’s Primary Care Project.
The award-winning initiative is a unique partnership between the area’s GP practices and GUM clinics designed to make sexual health services more accessible. It has allowed local GPs to test for a range of conditions, including HIV, chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea.
She said that across HIV remains a growing problem here, particularly among young men who have sex with men – many of whom aren’t old enough to remember the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
According to the PHA, the number of deaths among HIV-infected persons has been “relatively low” following the introduction of new anti-retroviral drugs over the past two decades.
And while HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was, Dr Carey stressed that it is still “a serious condition”, particularly if it isn’t diagnosed early before there is significant damage to the immune system.
“HIV can be managed and there are now very good drugs to treat it. People with HIV can have a normal life expectancy if treated early,” she explained.
“What we are finding though, particularly in Northern Ireland compared to other parts of the UK, is that we are diagnosing people late because people aren’t coming forward and being tested.
“We are still seeing deaths every year in Northern Ireland because people are being diagnosed too late.”
Dr Carey said there is still a stigma attached to HIV and revealed that around a third of people living with the condition are undiagnosed.
Appealing to anyone who is concerned that they may have the condition to “get tested”, she added: “I have seen people come back from significant damage to their immune system, so it is never too late to get tested.
“The key messages are ‘safe sex and get tested’, particularly for men who have sex with men as they are at increased risk of contracting the infection.”