On International Women's Day, Meet The Women Of ACT UP Dublin

Members of ACT UP Dublin, the direct action group combatting HIV/AIDS, share the facts.

Three women wearing ACT UP t-shirts standing beside a fence

ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to unleash power, is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the HIV/AIDS crisis. The first ACT UP chapter was founded in New York in 1987. Since then, dozens of chapters have been formed in countries around the world.

ACT UP Dublin was founded in July of 2016 in response to the steady growth in new HIV diagnoses in Ireland, and the persistent and pernicious silence and stigma that continue to surround HIV. There is a growing presence of women in the group, joining in the fight against stigma, inadequate services and inaccessible preventative medication. Here, three of those women tell us why they joined.

Kate Purcell

Kate is 28 and works in administration in the engineering industry, she joined ACT UP over a year ago, simply because she wanted to do something to help fight Ireland’s rising HIV diagnoses.

“The fight against HIV and AIDS is ingrained in our queer history, and the different chapters of ACT UP have been synonymous with that fight. On average in Ireland, someone is diagnosed with HIV every 18 hours, and every 18 hours someone new will face the social stigma that still sticks to HIV. HIV is a treatable condition that can be managed long-term. A revolutionary discovery was the fact that a person living with HIV who is on effective antiretroviral treatment cannot pass on HIV to a sexual partner.

“Through the PARTNER study, it was proven that someone with HIV who is on antiretroviral treatment, and who has had an undetectable viral load for at least six months is unable to pass on HIV through sex. This is known as U=U or Undetectable = Untransmittable; an undetectable viral load = untransmittable HIV. The message of U=U is one of treatment as prevention. Knowing your HIV status, taking antiretroviral drugs as prescribed, and having an undetectable viral load in your blood, means that you cannot pass on the virus to a sexual partner.

“Getting the U=U message into the public helps challenge lingering HIV stigma. Thanks to advances in medicine, people living with HIV can live long, healthy lives, have families, and not worry about passing the virus on to anyone. Despite this, people remain ignorant and public perceptions still need to be challenged. Help fight HIV stigma by talking to your peers about HIV prevention and about U=U, by calling out language and behaviour that stigmatises people living with HIV.”

Holly Shortall,

Holly, 29, from Dublin, works in marketing, communications and social media. She joined ACT UP in June of last year after she became aware of Ireland’s HIV crisis.

“HIV can affect anyone; Cis women, trans people, intravenous drug users, men who have sex with men. When I heard that there are approximately ten new cases of HIV diagnoses reported every week in Ireland, I was shocked. However, it starts to make sense when you realise the extent of the barriers people face when it comes to accessing effective preventative measures. For example, funding for the Gay Men’s Health Service clinic on Baggot Street in Dublin, which has provided sexual healthcare services for gay and bisexual men and trans people for 25 years, has been slashed over the last decade. Currently, PrEP—a HIV preventative medication—is not available through the HSE; Doctors can prescribe it and all of the necessary tests can be obtained from a GP or an STI clinic, but users must pay for it, which makes it inaccessible to many.

“We’ve been conditioned to be terrified of HIV, and to not speak about it, but facts are facts: when HIV medication is working, there’s literally no risk of passing it on. Everybody should be made aware of this. Through ACT UP’s communications, messaging and direct action, we hope to help end the stigma and shame that has been associated with HIV for too long and work toward making preventative medication accessible to all.”

Aine Leen

Aine, 24, is a newly-qualified pharmacist, originally from Kerry now living in Dublin, who joined ACT UP in September last year, having found out about the group through social media. 

“I joined ACT UP when I became aware of the lack of supports and services in Ireland for people living with HIV, as well as the potential difficulties in accessing effective treatment and prevention. Being a pharmacist means I work hands-on with PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, which is a safe and effective way for HIV-negative people to prevent HIV. Women and men who are at high risk of HIV can use daily PrEP as a way to stay HIV negative.

“The most common way PrEP is prescribed is daily dosing: you take one pill every day. That works well for anyone, of any gender, and whether you are having vaginal or anal sex (or both). This is also the only recommended regimen for people using injection drugs or who have hepatitis B.

“If you have anal sex but not vaginal sex, there are other options that you can also use. Event-based dosing, also called on-demand dosing, involves using PrEP only around the time of sex. It’s very important to understand exactly how event-based dosing works and to do it correctly every time. Unlike with daily dosing, if you miss even one pill the effectiveness of event-based dosing is greatly reduced. Another option is called ‘holiday PrEP’. This is suitable for people who have anal or vaginal sex. This method is basically daily PrEP, but used only during a pre-planned period of time when you want the high level of protection against HIV that PrEP offers.”

ACT UP Dublin holds regular meetings at 6:30pm on the first and third Tuesdays of every month at the offices of HIV Ireland at 70 Eccles Street, Dublin 7, across the street from the Mater Private Hospital. The meetings are open to anyone interested in taking action to end the HIV/AIDS crisis. For more information, check out www.actupdublin.com 

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