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Combat stigma around HIV to encourage good sexual health, says HIV charity chief

Combatting the stigma around HIV is vital to promoting good sexual health in Northern Ireland, the head of a leading charity has said in advance of Northern Ireland Sexual Health week takes which takes place from Monday 11 to Sunday 17 February.

Chief Executive of Positive Life NI, Jacquie Richardson

Marking the beginning of sexual health week in Northern Ireland (Monday 11 to Sunday 17 February), Jacquie Richardson, Chief Executive of Positive Life NI, said that negative attitudes towards HIV, and those living with it, was discouraging people from talking about how to look after their sexual health and getting tested if they were at risk.

There are over 1000 people living with HIV in Northern Ireland but the charity estimates that there are also 200+ people are living unaware they are HIV positive here. One of the primary reasons many of these people do not come forward for testing or have sat on reactive tests at home, is because of the prejudice, negative attitudes and abuse experienced by those living with HIV in Northern Ireland.

The charity is also concerned that many long-standing, pervasive misconceptions around HIV, means that people are putting themselves at risk without being aware of it.

Jacquie Richardson, Chief Executive of Positive Life NI said: “If we’re going to encourage people to get tested, if we want to encourage people to take ownership and control of their sexual health, then we really need to combat the stigma that surrounds sexually transmitted infections, especially HIV.”

“We are aware that many people have shunned getting tested for HIV due to the stigma that surrounds even going to the likes of the GUM clinic to get checked. We have to be more open and accepting of our own sexual health and the sexual health of those around us, otherwise we are creating a situation where hundreds of people are unaware that they are living with HIV, and not accessing services.”

“I deal with people every day who are living with HIV and it’s important for people to understand it’s no longer the death sentence it once was in the 1980’s. It’s a lifelong condition but a perfectly manageable one.”

“It’s also important that we widen sex education to challenge a lot of myths around sexual health. What we see now is people coming out of long-term relationships in their 40’s and 50’s with very little in terms of sex education who don’t have the knowledge they need to take ownership of their sexual health.”

“In Northern Ireland we really struggle to talk openly about sex and sexual health. There is a culture of embarrassment and shame about it and it’s something we have to combat. Burying our heads in the sand simply doesn’t work.”

“Sexual health week is an important opportunity for us to have these open and honest conversations. It’s time to stop letting embarrassment and stigma prevent us from taking care of our own sexual health.”