Tomas Heneghan looks at HIV and the importance of regular testing and the campaigns surrounding the virus.

Have you ever had a Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) test? Did you ever consider getting a HIV test? Last week I got tested for the first time. I was offered a free rapid HIV test and decided, with it being so quick and simple; it would have been careless on my part to refuse it. It would cost €1.90, the price of a bus ticket, and nothing more. Where was the harm?

The test time itself only took 60 seconds but my cold hands stunted the blood flow to my fingers at the time, drawing the process out that bit further.

I was given an information sheet and the test was fully explained to me. Throughout each step of the process, the two women involved explained what was happening, from the finger pinch, to filling a small vile of blood, to adding chemicals to the blood sample, to showing me the development process of the test itself.

Two pin-pricks and a single blue dot (non-reactive result) later, it was over. There was of course the obligatory chat before and after the test, as well as the usual form to be filled in. The women put me completely at ease and there was absolutely no judgment.

For the rapid HIV test, it’s crucial to know that a non-reactive result might not reflect a person’s current HIV status if they’ve had sex during the previous 6 to 12 weeks. On the other side, if a reactive result shows up on the test, it equally does not necessarily mean someone is HIV positive. If the test result is reactive, it’s recommended that you attend a Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) clinic for further tests.

I got tested at the GOSHH (Gender Orientation Sexual Health HIV) Centre in Limerick. I also walked out with four free condoms and packets of lube. I may have tested negative for HIV that day but GOSHH wanted to make sure it would stay that way.

Despite misconceptions, HIV isn’t merely a gay issue. Anyone who is sexually active with another person can contract HIV. Safe sex and regular testing are the best ways to either avoid or control HIV.

In 2013 there were 344 newly diagnosed cases of HIV in Ireland. 159 of these were in men who have had sex with men (MSM). 131 of the new cases came about through heterosexual sexual activity. The statistics for a number of years do in fact suggest more MSM contract HIV than any other group of individuals. These are statistics which need to be carefully analysed and which require accurate context.

Various targeted campaigns in recent years have encouraged gay and bisexual men in particular to get their HIV status checked. Man2Man is one such recent initiative. This campaign, jointly run by the HSE (Health Services Executive), promotes various sexual health services for MSM, including the Gay Men’s Health Service Clinic and a free condoms service. I have yet to see one single and equally intense initiative encouraging other groups to get tested.

The reason for this failing on both the parts of the HSE and Department of Health seems to be that the statistics show that more MSM contract HIV anyway. The implication here is that the group who test positive for HIV more should be the ones targeted more for testing.

I recently went in search of the statistics for everyone in Ireland who was tested in any single year for HIV. I failed to find those statistics because the statistics do not exist. Are more gay and bisexual men being cautious and getting tested for HIV? Are less heterosexual men getting tested because of the targeted campaigns aimed at gay and bisexual men? Who knows - no one is compiling the numbers.

The State and HSE are failing other groups of individuals in a refusal to compile accurate data.

As a heterosexual, how often are you encouraged by the State, HSE or Department of Health to get your HIV status checked? Have you ever had a campaign targeted at you encouraging you to get tested?

To get accurate statistics on HIV in Ireland, the State must immediately begin compiling the numbers of people who get tested for HIV in Ireland each year. I can’t predict the results of any such analysis. What I can guarantee, however, is that such a change would be far more scientific and will more accurately reflect which groups in society need targeted HIV testing campaigns.

To be fully vigilant of HIV and to put the correct services in place to provide help to those affected by HIV, the State and health services must encourage everyone who has ever been sexually active with another person to get tested.