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Infectious Diseases

Young people and HIV: knowledge is power

Former Mr Gay Ireland, Robbie, from Dublin, continually works to raise public awareness about HIV, including being on the Youth Stop AIDS Steering Committee and co-founding Access to Medicines Ireland.

How have your experiences changed your view of HIV/AIDS?

I was diagnosed with HIV six years ago. It was the biggest shock of my life because back then I was aware of STDs but didn’t know HIV existed. I think that’s because I was born in 1991 — and when antiretroviral therapy was introduced in 1996 the death rate rom AIDS began to fall. Even so, despite my lack of knowledge, I remember feeling ‘unclean’, undesirable and worried about my future. If I’d had the chance to talk to someone with HIV that would have been transformative for me. I wouldn’t have felt like that.

Are young people as aware of HIV/AIDS as they should be?

I talk about sexual health at secondary schools and universities and find that students are angry that no-one has told them about HIV. This is something you should know about in your formative years when you become sexually active! Actually, it’s not just young people. I think the general population doesn’t know much about it either. If you don’t understand the difference between HIV and AIDS, how can you know how it might affect you?

Ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to your sexual health — and especially HIV.

What effects do antiretroviral stockouts have on young adults living with HIV?

After participating in the Youth Stop AIDS Speaker Tour and telling my story alongside Brian, a young man living with HIV from Uganda, I decided to focus my PhD on young people’s experiences of antiretroviral stockouts in Uganda and how it makes them feel about their own HIV journey.

The golden rule of HIV is that you have to take your medication every single day. If the system fails and someone can’t access their medication, it can be very detrimental to how someone feels about themselves and their coping mechanisms. Also, of course, HIV can move from a chronic illness to a potentially terminal one.

What’s your advice to young people regarding their sexual health?

Ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to your sexual health — and especially HIV. Know the sexual health options available to you. Make it your mission to get checked every few months, and feel no shame about it because you’re taking responsibility for your own sexual health. And know that we have made such amazing medical advances in HIV treatment. Today, thanks to medication, I’ll live as long as anyone else; and also, I’m non-infectious and in a long-term relationship.

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