Stigma of HIV putting people at risk, says sexual health expert
Combating the stigma around HIV is vital to promoting good sexual health here, a charity has said.
Jacquie Richardson, chief executive of Positive Life NI, said negative attitudes towards the virus and those living with it were discouraging people from talking about how to look after their sexual health and getting tested if they were at risk.
There are more than 1,000 local people living with HIV, but the charity estimates that over 200 others are unaware that they are HIV positive.
HIV - human immunodeficiency virus - damages the cells in a person's immune system and weakens their ability to fight against everyday infections and diseases.
The charity said that one of the primary reasons many people do not come forward is because of the prejudice, negative attitudes and abuse experienced by those living with HIV.
It is also concerned that many long-standing, pervasive misconceptions around HIV mean that people are putting themselves at risk without being aware of it.
Ms Richardson was speaking to mark the start of Sexual Health Week, which runs until Sunday.
She said: "If we're going to encourage people to get tested, if we want to encourage people to take ownership and control of their sexual health, then we really need to combat the stigma that surrounds sexually transmitted infections, especially HIV.
"We are aware that many people have shunned getting tested for HIV due to the stigma that surrounds even going to the likes of the GUM (genitourinary medicine) clinic to get checked.
"We have to be more open and accepting of our own sexual health and the sexual health of those around us, otherwise we are creating a situation where hundreds of people are unaware that they are living with HIV, and not accessing services.
"I deal with people every day who are living with HIV and it's important for people to understand it's no longer the death sentence it once was in the 1980s."
According to Ms Richardson, HIV is a lifelong condition but a manageable one.
She added: "It's also important that we widen sex education to challenge a lot of myths around sexual health. What we see now is people coming out of long-term relationships in their 40s and 50s with very little in terms of sex education, who don't have the knowledge they need to take ownership of their sexual health.
"In Northern Ireland we really struggle to talk openly about sex and sexual health. There is a culture of embarrassment and shame about it and it's something we have to combat. Burying our heads in the sand simply doesn't work."
She said Sexual Health Week was an opportunity for people to have "open and honest conversations".
"It's time to stop letting embarrassment and stigma prevent us from taking care of our own sexual health," she added.
Positive Life NI is the only local dedicated HIV charity and supports people with and affected by HIV through services including counselling, complementary therapies, and family support.