I welcome the motion, which we will, of course, support.
World Aids Day takes place this week, so the motion is timely and will, no doubt, be welcomed by those impacted by the disease and organisations such as Positive Life and the Rainbow Project. The number of people living with HIV has reached its highest ever level: almost 1,000 people in the North know that they are living with HIV. However, what is most concerning is the high number of people who are unaware that they have HIV. We need to tackle the stigma and misunderstanding that surround HIV, such as the belief that HIV is a virus that solely impacts on gay and bisexual men, which, of course, is not true.
Those suffering often do not share the fact that they are living with a life-changing condition that has an ability to impact on their mental well-being and overall quality of life, but we must also increase awareness of the causes, symptoms and living with HIV. That is an obvious area for cross-border cooperation because HIV, as with many issues, does not recognise borders and impacts on men and women North and South equally.
In response to a question for written answer regarding departmental actions in tackling the stigma, the Minister of Health informed me of a recent workshop to consider key sexual health issues; HIV awareness training in health and social care trusts; and the funding of a number of voluntary organisations that raise awareness and provide information and support to those living with or affected by HIV. All this is positive, and evidence that the Minister is committed to tackling the stigma and supporting those living with HIV. However, as with many issues, this issue spans other Departments. I recently submitted a question to the Minister of Education to ask what provision was made for the teaching of sexual health in schools. Education in schools around sexual health, sexually transmitted infections and the prevention of HIV is key. Through education and increased awareness, we must encourage people to look after their sexual health — in particular, young people.
In the North last year, 9,600 people were diagnosed with STIs — further evidence that we need to educate to ensure that all of us, including young people, make positive choices about our own sexual health. Sexual health information should not depend on the ethos of the school or opinion of individual teachers.
We need to further encourage testing. Whilst I welcome the introduction of home HIV testing kits, they undoubtedly require improvement to ensure ease of use. I recently met Positive Life. I commend its work in not only supporting those living with HIV but increasing awareness and shining a light on the fact that so many people are totally unaware that they have HIV. I also commend the sterling work of the Rainbow Project.
As a society, we must respond to this and develop services and information to meet the needs of those living with or affected by HIV, as well as those living unaware. Finally, to those suffering from HIV but too afraid to speak out: talk to someone. Support services are available, and people are willing to listen and help.