More than 900 people have HIV in Northern Ireland, Stormont told
More than 900 people are living with HIV in Northern Ireland, the Stormont Assembly has been told.
During 2015, some 103 people were diagnosed with the virus - the highest recorded in a single year.
The figures emerged as MLAs debated a motion calling for increased action to promote awareness and reduce stigma associated with HIV.
DUP representative Gary Middleton, who tabled the motion, said: "It is difficult enough for those living with this condition to seek diagnosis and treatment but it is unacceptable this is made even more difficult by the lack of understanding of the condition and its effects."
Just over 40% of HIV cases in Northern Ireland were as a result of heterosexual contact, it emerged.
It was also claimed that 61% of those diagnosed with HIV in the region felt ashamed, while a further 69% had a negative self image - significantly higher than those living in other parts of the UK.
Mr Middleton, who sits on the all party group for sexual health at Stormont, added: "There is a clear need for a new campaign to promote awareness through outreach, counselling, harm reduction and education.
"We need to challenge the old perception and old stigmas and ensure that people living in Northern Ireland understand what it means to live with HIV."
Meanwhile, in an amendment, the Alliance Party urged support for the introduction of the drug Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP).
Paula Bradshaw said: "One hundred and three people last year were diagnosed with HIV in Northern Ireland.
"One hundred and three people and their families not knowing how their lives were to be affected in terms of relationships, friendships, employment prospects and life chances.
"The truth is we can reduce this number. One way is through this medication designed for people who do not have HIV but who are at a very high risk of getting it.
"This is PrEP, a daily pill that has a very high efficacy at preventing infection."
The South Belfast MLA highlighted that the lifetime cost of treating an HIV patient was estimated at £300,000 and said it made economic sense to make it available.
"Even in people don't like the thought of this in moralistic terms, I would ask them to look at this in economic terms and the cost to the public purse," she said.
The debate is the first substantive discussion around HIV to reach the floor of the Assembly.
Jacquie Richardson, chief executive of Positive Life, the region's only dedicated charity supporting those with HIV, said it was encouraging.
She said: "It is an issue that is often swept under the carpet due to the stigma that is attached to it and we are encouraged to see it discussed publicly."
"HIV in Northern Ireland is widely stigmatised and those living with the condition are often disparaged or devalued. Positive Life believes that if stereotypes around HIV were curtailed, HIV testing would increase, reducing undiagnosed and late diagnosis of HIV in Northern Ireland.
"We warmly welcome this debate today and the support from the MLAs. We now need to see this translated into financial support, awareness raising to reduce the high level of stigma, increasing levels of testing and the development of a sexual health strategy for Northern Ireland."