HIV and sexual health front and centre at this year’s Dublin Pride as ACT UP to lead parade with U=U message

ACT UP will share the U=U message as Ireland is in the midst of an HIV and STI crisis, with new HIV diagnoses reaching a record high of 528 in 2018.

ACT Up U=U message
Image: Will St Leger

HIV activist group ACT UP Dublin are on course to make history this Saturday June 29 as they lead Dublin’s annual Pride Parade with the ground-breaking U=U message. ACT UP Dublin member and this year’s Dublin Pride Grand Marshal, Will St Leger, will lead the group in sharing the ground-breaking message: thanks to advances in science and medicine, people living with HIV can live long, healthy lives and not worry about passing the virus on.

This is the first time Dublin Pride will lead with the U=U message, and one of the first times any Pride Parade globally has done so. ACT UP will be immediately followed by contingents from HIV Ireland, Positive Now and the Gay Men’s Health Service, putting HIV and sexual health front and centre in this year’s parade. By sharing the U=U message, ACT UP hopes to raise awareness and help end the stigma that is still associated with HIV today.

The group is also using the opportunity to highlight the need for a ‘sexual revolution’ in Ireland. This is in direct response to rising HIV and STI rates, substandard sex education, and inaccessible or underfunded sexual health services nationally. The group will also be showing solidarity with people living in Direct Provision centres, transgender people and sex workers in Ireland.

ACT UP Dublin

ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, is a global, diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the HIV/AIDS crisis with chapters in New York, Paris and London, amongst others. ACT UP Dublin was founded in July of 2016 in response to the lack of an effective response to the steady rise in new HIV diagnoses in Ireland, and the persistent and pernicious silence and stigma that continues to surround HIV.

St Leger—a highly-regarded artist and long-time activist, and a member of ACT UP Dublin—was announced as the Grand Marshal of Pride 2019 earlier this year and has been utilising his platform to raise awareness of U=U.

Speaking ahead of the Pride Parade, St Leger said: “This year’s Pride Festival marks 50 years since the historic Stonewall Riots in New York. Transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson is remembered as being one of the most prominent people who led the Stonewall uprising, however many don’t know that at the time of her untimely death in 1992, she was living with HIV and a member of ACT UP New York, so it feels significant that ACT UP are at the forefront of the Dublin LGBTQ Pride Parade this year.

“We want to use this opportunity to spread the message as wide and far as possible that if you are living with HIV and you are on effective treatment you cannot pass HIV on to your sexual partners—even without other prevention methods like condoms or PrEP. Everyone living with HIV deserves to know that you can lead a long, healthy life, have children, and never have to worry about passing the virus on to others. Undetectable equals Untransmittable—U=U.

Undetectable = Untransmittable

HIV is a treatable condition that can be managed long-term. With access to proper care and treatment a person diagnosed with HIV today can expect to remain healthy and live a normal life. In addition, a person living with HIV who is on antiretroviral treatment with an undetectable viral load for at least 6 months cannot pass on HIV through sex.

This is known as Undetectable = Untransmittable or U=U. Results of the landmark PARTNER 2 study, published in the Lancet in 2019, provide conclusive evidence for U=U. That study followed nearly 800 eligible male couples where one partner was living with HIV and the other was not. It concluded that with over 76,000 reports of condomless sex, not one person with HIV who on effective antiretroviral therapy—medications to treat HIV—passed HIV to their sexual partner.

HIV in Ireland

HIV diagnoses in Ireland reached an all-time high of 528 in 2018, according to figures released by the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre. HIV diagnoses in 2018 increased by 7% over the number of diagnoses in 2017, and were 5% higher than the previous high of 502 diagnoses in 2016. Preliminary figures for 2019 show no decline, with a slight increase over 2018 figures at the same time last year.

On average, there is a new HIV diagnosis in Ireland every 17 hours – about 10 a week, or over 520 a year. Barriers to prevention are many: Persistent high levels of stigma around HIV and sexual health, lack of inclusive sex education, funding to Dublin’s Gay Men’s Health Service (GMHS) slashed over the last decade, grossly inadequate regional sexual health services, lack of access to effective HIV prevention tools like PrEP (“Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis”— a safe and effective way for HIV-negative people to prevent HIV by taking medication before and after sex), and a lawsuit threatening to force cheaper generic versions of PrEP out of Irish pharmacies.

This upward trend is in stark contrast to declines in other EU countries. In November the ECDC reported that in “the European Union and European Economic Area (EU/EEA) countries reported a decline in rates of new diagnoses, mainly driven by a 20% decrease since 2015 among men who have sex with men.”

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