People Diagnosed with HIV

Part of Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:30 pm on 29th November 2016.

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Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP 12:30 pm, 29th November 2016

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the increasing number of people diagnosed with HIV in Northern Ireland, year on year; is concerned at the levels of stigma experienced by people living with HIV; acknowledges the need for a new campaign to promote awareness and prevention, specifically tailored to Northern Ireland; commends the work of Positive Life, Northern Ireland's only dedicated charity working to support people diagnosed with HIV; and calls on the Minister of Health to support this organisation in the development of a centre of excellence at its new headquarters.

I propose the motion, which stands also in the names of Paula Bradley and Trevor Clarke, on behalf of the DUP. We believe that it is an important and timely motion that will go some way, I hope, to raise further awareness, reduce the stigma and recognise the very positive work that is ongoing in the area of HIV. It is also fitting that we do so today, which is World AIDS Day 2016, and that we wear the red ribbon which, in itself, is a powerful symbol to challenge the stigma around AIDS and HIV.

World AIDS Day can be a difficult and emotional time, when people reflect on the damage that the virus has caused and the lives that have been lost as a result. However, it is also an appropriate time to recognise the progress that has been made and, more importantly, focus on the work that is still to be done in preventing the spread of the virus, improving the treatment and health of people infected by it and eradicating the stigma and prejudice that are still too often associated with HIV.

In October of this year, research revealed that there were now over 900 people living with HIV in Northern Ireland. That is an increase of 15% on the 2015 figure. The 103 cases of HIV diagnosed last year is the highest number to be recorded in a single year. Not only is that a worrying trend, it highlights the need for more to be done to address the condition and ensure that there is early diagnosis and treatment of those affected. It is estimated that there are hundreds of others who do not know that they have HIV.

Sadly, there is still a stigma attached to HIV that affects the people living with it. A recent survey indicated that, of those living with HIV in Northern Ireland, 61% felt ashamed of their diagnosis, compared with 49% elsewhere in the UK. That same survey revealed that 68% of people in Northern Ireland diagnosed with HIV had a negative self-image, compared with 56% elsewhere in the UK. It is difficult enough for those suffering with the condition to seek diagnosis and treatment, and it is unacceptable that that is made even more difficult by a lack of understanding around the condition and its effects. To challenge some of the stigma, it is important that we recognise that, of the people currently living with HIV, just over 40% of those cases involved heterosexual contact.

Stigma increases the likelihood of late diagnosis. Late diagnosis can have serious implications and can result in increased risk of other conditions, such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and some cancers. It also limits treatment options and affects the overall prognosis. Given that treatments can now mean that a person who is diagnosed early with HIV can reasonably expect to live a long and healthy life, it is hugely important that people who may be at risk test early. Crucial to that is the need for people who work in our health service to be able to recognise the risk factors and symptoms of early HIV infection. It is essential that those on the front line — our GPs and nurses — be given the necessary support and advice not only to deal with those who have been diagnosed with HIV but to prevent HIV. The fact that, as I mentioned, hundreds of others who have HIV are unaware that they have the virus is deeply worrying. More information on prevention, early diagnosis and treatment would help alleviate the fear, destigmatise the testing and, I hope, promote a more confident approach to those who present for testing.

Through the motion, we commend the work of Positive Life and the role that it plays in supporting those with HIV, advocating on their behalf, working to destigmatise HIV and ensuring that those affected are treated with respect and dignity and live a healthy life. As a member of the all-party group on sexual health, I have seen at first hand how Positive Life interacts and engages with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure that their issues are heard and how it works collectively with those in the sexual health field. We must do all that we can to support it in its work to promote awareness and prevention. There is a clear need for a new campaign to promote such awareness through outreach, counselling, harm reduction and education. We need to challenge the old perception and the old stigmas and ensure that people living in Northern Ireland understand what it means to live with HIV here. We encourage the Minister to support Positive Life and the work that it does and to assist it in the development of a centre of excellence at its new headquarters.

It is also fair that we recognise the work of the Public Health Agency (PHA) and the information that it provides on sexual health issues, including HIV, and the work and awareness training that it carries out throughout our trusts.

We need all the many health and social care organisations and volunteer sector organisations to continue the great work that they do. However, we need to work more closely together, encouraging greater collaboration and ensuring that the Department gives a clear strategic direction in this important area. I commend the motion to the House.