On his recent St Patrick’s Day trip to the US, An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar was greeted by several HIV activists from ACT UP as he visited the Stonewall monument in New York’s East Village.
Holding handmade placards, a small group of HIV activists pressed Ireland’s openly gay leader about affordable access to PrEP, all as the conversation was being live streamed on Facebook. This unique interaction between our Taoiseach and a HIV pressure group was no accident; it was days in the planning with a flurry of Whatsapp messages and conversations via Facebook, between Dublin and New York with a four-hour time difference.
It began early in the week when Varadkar hinted that he wanted to visit the site of the 1969 Stonewall riots, often described as the birthplace of the modern LGBT liberation movement. The Dublin chapter of ACT UP saw Varadkar’s visit to the historic site as an opportunity to engage the Taoiseach on the subject of Ireland’s HIV crisis.
Because ACT UP is a global network of HIV and AIDS activists, we reached out to our fellow members in ACT UP New York and gave them information about the status of PrEP in Ireland, data on the increasing numbers of new HIV diagnoses to bring to the Taoiseach’s attention.
Furnished with the facts and with two hours notice, the activists assembled on Christopher Street at the Stonewall monument, bringing with them hastily made signs to catch the Taoiseach’s eye. And it worked. Leo spotted them and approached them to talk.
When ACT UP asked when the HSE is going to start paying for PrEP, the Taoiseach responded, “In the next couple of months I hope. That’s the intention.” Mr Varadkar was also asked if he personally supported that PrEP should be made available and covered under the HSE to which he responded “Absolutely. Subject to the cost-benefit analysis being favourable, which is the same for any medicine.”
This brief conversation with the Taoiseach is significant because, apart from one tweet in 2017 regarding the availability of generic PrEP for €100 in pharmacies, the Taoiseach has been silent about Ireland’s HIV crisis and the solutions.
HIV does not discriminate against race, religion, sex, sexual or gender orientation. HIV does not recognise borders, which means that the fight to end this 37-year-old pandemic must be fought on every shore, engaging with the decision makers as they travel from country to country.
I hope that this brief conversation with ACT UP, will be the first of many discussions the Taoiseach will have about Ireland’s HIV epidemic and those words are followed by urgent political action.
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