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 per cent drop in HIV diagnoses due to earlier intervention and improved prevention measures, the number of cases in Northern Ireland 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 per cent between 2005 and 2015 - in stark contrast with the rest of the UK where the number of new cases fell by 23 per cent over the same period.
According to the report, there were 103 new cases of HIV diagnosed in Northern Ireland 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 eight per cent in Northern Ireland.
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 across the South Eastern Trust area to test for a range of conditions, including HIV, chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea.
She said that across Northern Ireland HIV remains a growing problem, 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 antiretroviral 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, who has a background in General Practice, says 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.”
• Close to 1,000 HIV cases across Northern Ireland
There are currently more than 900 confirmed cases of HIV in Northern Ireland, and that figure is increasing significantly every year.
According to the ‘HIV Surveillance in Northern Ireland 2016’ report, “prevalence in Northern Ireland remains lower than in the other UK countries”, but “the percentage increase in annual new diagnoses in Northern Ireland between 2005 and 2015 is highest of the UK countries.”
The condition is much more prevalent among men, with around 60 per cent of new cases being diagnosed in men who have sex with men.
While the virus can be transmitted in a number of ways, sexual contact remains the “key route of transmission”, according to the PHA report.
Anyone with concerns about their sexual health should contact their GP or their local GUM clinic.