The impact of the pandemic on sexual health services in Ireland has again been laid bare as the Sexual Health Centre in Cork reports that they administered just 178 rapid HIV tests in 2020 compared to 719 in 2019.
The rapid HIV testing service was suspended for several months last March, and was run solely from the Sexual Health Centre by appointment since it returned in July. The centre did see an increase in their counselling services around HIV. They facilitated 460 sessions for the Cork community, which was an increase from 286 in 2019.
“Our remote counselling and health promotion services have been crucial to maintaining the community’s sexual health during an exceptionally challenging time for many,” said Ciarán Lynch, Chairperson of the Sexual Health Centre.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, sexual health services have been significantly diminished. While most STI clinics resumed services at the end of last year, there are usually restrictions on walk-ins due to the pandemic. The LGBTQ+ community are left waiting for the return of these urgently needed services in full. The Gay Men’s Health Service in Dublin remains closed for over a year which has led to concerns of an increase in STIs and HIV.
Over 1,200 fewer people had been diagnosed with HIV or a sexually transmitted infection (STI) up to April 3 this year, than at the same time in 2020 according to figures from the HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre.
The figure for the first 13 weeks of this year is 2,450 – down over a third from the same period last year when the HSE recorded 3,733 HIV or STI diagnoses. It was 27th March last year that the first full lockdown began and STI and HIV testing decreased.
“Ongoing restrictions on testing mean that the true rate of transmission of HIV and other STIs in 2020 is likely unknown, with the potential for a significant unchecked spike in HIV transmission,” Stephen O’Hare, Executive Director of HIV Ireland said last year.
Despite ongoing calls for the GMHS to reopen there have been no plans announced as to when it will happen. STI testing at the Sexual Health Centre in Cork is also currently unavailable as it is under reconstruction but they are open for rapid HIV testing by appointment.
The centre also saw an increased demand for support from LGBTQ+ people in 2020. There was a 37% increase for their LGBTQ+ sexual health support service that provides guidance on healthy relationships, sexual issues, sexual function, orientation, risk, and ‘coming out’.
Olivia Teahan, the Communications & Engagement Lead for the centre said: “While the format of our service delivery transformed significantly in 2020, our end goal remained the same – to facilitate positive sexual health outcomes for the people of Cork.”
To find out more about the Sexual Health Centre’s services for LGBTQ+ people and their HIV testing click here.
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