The number of people living with HIV in Ireland has increased by 62.5% in the past ten years.
According to the UNAIDS Global Report 2012, there were 7 800 people living with HIV in 2011 against 4 800 in 2001, a dramatic increase which has put Ireland near the top of the OECD European chart of HIV and AIDS incidences.
The country has one of the highest rates of HIV incidences in Europe with 7.4 cases per million population and ranks 8th worst out of the 27, just above the European median 6.2, along with Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal, UK, Belgium, Latvia and Estonia according to the OECD latest statistics.
Less than 100 people die from AIDS in Ireland every year according to the UNAIDS 2012 report.
HIV is the virus responsible for Acquired Immunodeficiency (Disease) Syndrome (AIDS). It takes up to three month after infection for the HIV antibodies to show in the blood, rendering any test done during that ‘window period’ ineffective.
The virus was first isolated in 1983, and it took two more years for a test to be created. That year, two cases were diagnosed in Ireland and by 1989 there were 126 cases known.
Each week new cases are diagnosed in Ireland. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) has reported 114 new cases since the start of the year, a 50% increase compared to the same dates last year. Amongst these newly diagnosed cases 79 were men and 35 women.
According to UNAIDS, the main population at risk are injecting drug users (IDUs) and men who have sex with men (MSM).
In Ireland, 4% of the 314 new diagnoses in 2012 were amongst IDUs and out of the 244 men diagnosed with HIV, 48.7% were MSM.
In a study commissioned by the Department of Health and Children and the Crisis Pregnancy Agency in response to a recommendation by the National AIDS Strategy Committee in 2003, 99.5% of the people surveyed believed that young people should receive sexual education in topics such as contraception (98%) and safer sex and STIs (99%), sex and sexual intercourse (96%) and sexual feelings, relationships and emotions (96%) and homosexuality (94.2%).
Twenty per cent of the people surveyed were unable to answer questions about HIV/AIDS correctly and over two-fifths of men and around half of women with primary education alone did not have accurate knowledge about the risks of HIV.
The section 4 of the Rules and Programme for secondary schools requires schools to have an agreed policy for RSE and a suitable RSE programme in place for all students at both junior and senior cycle. It is the responsibility of the school to ensure that an RSE programme is made available to all students from junior to sixth year and even though RSE is a mandatory programme, it is not taught in all schools or for every class.
In 2007, in close to 50% of schools fifth and sixth years received no sex education according to a report published by the Children’s Research Centre at Trinity College Dublin, Relationships and Sexuality education (RSE) in the context of Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE).
A similar report published in 2010 showed a dramatic decrease with almost 74% of young people receiving little or no sexual education.
According to the Department of Education and Skills statistical report for 2012-2013 only 4% of second-level schools provided RSE as part of their Junior and Leaving Certificate programme last year and only 55 students out of 10 000 took the class at Leaving Cert level. Out of these students 56% were males but there were no students enrolled in the programme in male-only schools at junior cert level. These figures contradict greatly the statistics found, as 71% of the people infected were males in 2012 and already represent 69% of this year’s diagnoses.
In a series on sex education published last February, The Irish Times pointed out a lack of transparency in sex education and the difficulty in assessing the quality of the teaching due to the Department of Education and Science (DES) not keeping records.
“The majority of schools declined to answer basic questions about who visited to give talks or classes, or what textbooks they use.”
While the RSE programme is the same for all students, each school can change it to fit their ethos and can bring in external groups to deliver the class.
“The DES have repeatedly raised serious concerns about the teaching methods and tactics of some groups, as well as how some schools are over-reliant on them. The DES keeps no record.”
In 1985, Gemma Hussey, Minister for Education at the time, was strongly opposed by religious pressure groups when she highlighted the need for sexual education. It wasn’t before September 2003, 6 years after the first circular was issued by the DES, that the SPHE was fully implemented.
Sexual education programmes in Irish schools has been mandatory since then although parents can withdraw their children from RSE classes if they choose to do so.