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Speech by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, HIV Ireland Red Ball

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be here this evening at the inaugural Red Ball.

Today is Bloomsday and earlier I had the traditional ‘Ulysses’ breakfast of slightly burnt kidneys at the James Joyce Centre.

Joyce’s masterpiece is about many things. One idea that runs through it is the stigma associated with certain medical conditions. We learn a lot from the way they are used as a source of humour, to mock and to shame.

Joyce believed that history was a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. I believe the history of how we used to treat people with HIV and AIDS was a nightmare that we are only now beginning to wake up from.

In place of judgement, we need understanding.

In place of coldness, we need compassion.

I am here tonight because I believe we should celebrate the work of HIV Ireland and others, and we should take every opportunity we can to educate ourselves and raise awareness.

For over thirty years, HIV Ireland has provided a range of essential free services: counselling, information, advice, education, training, community support, and testing.

Every day you fulfil your mandate to help people and that’s thanks to your hard working staff and dedicated volunteers.

All of you working in this challenging area can be:

  • proud of your achievements;
  • proud of how much you do to help and protect those living with HIV and AIDS; and
  • proud that you care so much about their health and wellbeing.

I was honoured to officially launch HIV Ireland on World AIDS Day in 2015 while Minister for Health.

The change of name was an acknowledgement that the great improvements in treatment now mean that for many living with HIV in Ireland progression to AIDS is no longer inevitable.

Earlier this year the first audit of HIV treatment services was carried.

We now know that people attending HIV services in Ireland are doing very well. Last year, 5317 people living with HIV attended HIV services with 98% on antiretroviral drugs. Of those, 95% were virally suppressed.

Unfortunately even today HIV is still one of the most stigmatised medical conditions.

This stigma is an additional burden on top of the burden of the disease.

This month marks 25 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Three years since the marriage equality referendum.

The stigma against gay people is largely lifted. The same must happen for people who are HIV positive.

In the past, HIV Ireland has conducted excellent research on HIV-related stigma. It has shown how people may feel socially alienated from wider society to the point of feeling desperate.

So, events like tonight reach out to everyone who has been affected by HIV. When you raise awareness, when you inform and educate, you reduce stigma and fear.

The money raised from this event is also important, and the message it sends is even more valuable.

It says that we stand in solidarity with those who have HIV, their family and their friends.

Our strategy on National Sexual Health is set within the wider Healthy Ireland framework. A cross Government programme to encourage us all to make the right choices and improve our own health.

One of our goals is to ensure that everyone in Ireland receives comprehensive and age-appropriate sexual health education and information.

This builds on the positive and strong partnerships that exist between the voluntary sector in this area and the HSE’s Sexual Health Crisis Pregnancy Programme.

We are also developing HIV prevention strategies. We are all aware of the recent availability of generic PrEP.

This is a significant positive step towards making this prevention tool more readily available to those at risk of HIV in Ireland.

However, there is a safety issue here. We need to ensure that people taking PrEP are appropriately monitored so that they, and potentially others, come to no harm.

To achieve this, the HSE Sexual Health Crisis Pregnancy Programme has convened a multisectoral group to make recommendations around HIV PrEP for Ireland.

It recently disseminated practical guidance to healthcare professionals around caring for individuals accessing PrEP themselves, including sourcing medicines online.

It helps ensure that health care professionals are aware of how best to use PrEP, and that everyone is aware of how best to take PrEP.

We have also asked for a Health Technology Assessment of a HIV PrEP programme in Ireland. I am confident that we will have one in place next year and I expect no less.

I am grateful to have this opportunity to thank everyone involved in the Sexual Health Programme for their work, and all of you who are making a difference in this area.

The challenge of reducing the number of new HIV diagnoses in Ireland is a major public health issue.

I am pleased at the success of near patient and rapid testing. Initial results indicate that it has helped to capture people who otherwise would not get tested. This is so important because we know that people most likely to pass on HIV are those who don’t know their status.

I began with Joyce, so perhaps I’ll conclude with another writer, this time the great 19th century novelist, George Eliot.

She believed that ‘the growing good of the world’ depended on ordinary people doing extraordinary things that would never appear in the history books.

Your action tonight and throughout the year contributes greatly to the growing good of the world.

And I am delighted to be here tonight on behalf of the Government and wider society to acknowledge that.

Thank You and enjoy your evening.