Clonmel's Tonie Walsh was diagnosed with HIV in 2005.
A Clonmel man living with HIV the past 12 years “survived the war period” and wants a “game-changer” drug rolled out by Government to halt the numbers diagnosed with HIV in Ireland.
Past CBS High School student Tonie Walsh says there is an “STI crisis” at present, labelling Ireland’s record 512 new cases of HIV in 2016 as “shocking”.
‘Festival Champion’ for this month’s South Tipperary Positive Mental Health Festival, Tonie is determined to reshape society’s attitude towards safer sex.
“Watching friends and lovers die from AIDS has really shaped my attitude and how I deal with being HIV positive,” 56-year-old Tonie tells The Nationalist.
“The increase in HIV and STIs across the board in Ireland is shocking and unnecessary. It really highlights that the message surrounding safe sex and responsible isn’t getting across, and more work is needed to educate society,” the University College Dublin Art History and French graduate continues.
Tonie says the advances in antiretroviral drugs are “remarkable”, but reiterates that “game-changer” HIV prevention strategy PrEP needs to become widely available.
“I’m taking medication that's not without its complications, but ironically I don’t run the risk of infecting someone with HIV. I have sex and live an ordinary life, and my HIV won’t advance to AIDS thanks to a €43 a day pill that the Government pays for.
“But people still don’t have access to PrEP medication and that needs to be addressed. Minister for Health Simon Harris needs to find his voice, stand up to companies responsible for producing the medication and also listen to the increasing amount of evidence coming out from other countries regarding the effectiveness of PrEP in reducing HIV infection. PrEP is a wonder drug that will reshape society’s attitude to HIV if it becomes available and affordable. It will reduce the risk of someone becoming infected with HIV if sexually exposed to the virus and will lead to a drop in the numbers of those diagnosed each year,” Tonie emphasises.
Mayor of the Clonmel Borough District Cllr. Catherine Carey and Tonie Walsh at the launch of South Tipperary Positive Mental Health Festival.
Tonie also believes that a better sexual health education strategy needs to be implemented in schools.
“We need to have a grown-up conversation about safe sex, and that includes the roll-out of rapid testing and better facilities in our larger towns and cities. If you go into a classroom, particularly of teenage boys, there is still stigma and embarrassment when it comes to talking about sex.
“We need to talk to those who have lived through the war with AIDS and come out the other side stronger - the younger generation can use survivors' coping mechanisms to deal with HIV stigma and shame.
“We need to learn how to better negotiate desire and intimacy, and talk about the reality that condoms do break and accidents happen with the best will in the world. The Catholic Church has done some great things, but we need to rid ourselves of its dodgy attitude towards sexuality. Kids are having sex - it is a fact! We need to take the bull by the horn, talk about protection and respecting our lover, and the options need to be readily available if something goes wrong,” a passionate Tonie highlights.
Getting diagnosed with HIV at 44 years old left Tonie “mortified”, but with time he has learnt to cope with being positive despite the stigma that continues to impact people living with the virus.
“I don’t care if people know I’m HIV positive anymore because it’s marvellous that I’m not infectious. I used to get hyper-anxious before having sex with someone new at first - ‘will I tell him I have HIV or won’t I?’ But I don't feel as nervous nowadays because it’s impossible for me to infect anyone and that’s a huge weight off my shoulders,” Tonie explains.
Tonie is active in getting an Irish AIDS memorial built in recognition of the lives lost to HIV, the grief of their loved ones left behind, and the work that needs to be done to combat infection and stigma in society. As curator of Irish Queer Archive, Tonie is also seeking the digitisation and open access of archives of HIV Ireland, GAY Health Action and HIV/ AIDS-related documents held in the collections at the National Library of Ireland.
“I feel a physical monument becomes a place of memory, not unlike those we have commemorating other great societal traumas and wars. A monument so important for the mobilisation of a community and of our society, as memorialising our loss and grief allows us to better value and share the coping mechanisms and survival strategies of a previous generation. In seeking a national AIDS memorial, I look to cities such as Amsterdam, Toronto, New York and Durban, which all have visually striking memorials,” he concludes.
Tonie is part of a group of speakers participating in LGBTI Awareness meetings across South Tipperary throughout October and November. The meetings are being coordinated by Gerard Reddin at Clonmel Community Centre. For dates in your area visit www.clonmelcrc.ie.