Adam Shanley of HIV Ireland is the director of the MPOWER programme, which focuses on grassroots, community-led HIV testing. At the GALAS he was nominated for the LGBT+ Role Model Award, with HIV Ireland being nominated for the Noel Walsh HIV Activism Award. He was modest about the nominations - “It’s great to be recognised,” he acknowledged, praising the other nominees and winners in both categories.
MPOWER and HIV Ireland do deserve any and all of the recognition that has, only recently, been on the rise. The campaign, which is funded by the HSE, is the result and culmination of many years of hard work and grassroots campaigning by Shanley and many others. Adam has been working with, and campaigning for, People Living With HIV for nearly five years. As part of his work with HIV Ireland, he began to notice the deficits in terms of services and resources, and campaigned for a redevelopment of GBT men’s health communications. “We made a bit of noise, in pure activist mode,” he laughs. But it worked.
The rise in HIV rates in Ireland is the most rapid in Europe, disproportionately affecting gay and bisexual men, with increased rates of bacterial infections such as syphilis and gonorrhoea also. The community, Shanley adds, are also struggling with the sexualised use of drugs such as GHB and crystal meth. All of this combines with non-medical issues also prevalent among gay and bisexual men, such as issues of self-esteem, self-worth, and a lack of community. “All of these challenges require a coordinated, sensitive and holistic approach.”
The new MPOWER programme consists of bringing gay men’s health services together under one banner, and includes rapid HIV testing; fast responses to the sexual health and wellbeing of the community; and greatly improved outreach and advertisement services. They then approached the HSE with the model for the programme and with the funding they received: “It gave us the opportunity to amalgamate separate bits that we had been working on into one programme.”
On the topic of working with the HSE, Shanley is positive, saying they were extremely receptive to the presentations and details involved with the programme, and did great work in the final stages. “It’s so fantastic to see the HSE taking responsibility for something like this.”
However, government funding is only one aspect of the programme. “There is only so far the HSE can go,” Shanley says, describing the importance of the peer-to-peer element of MPOWER, which is what makes it so unique and, hopefully, so effective. Rapid HIV testing, which can be performed on the spot with a finger-prick test, will be offered in a number of LGBT+ focused social venues around Dublin. The test offers a result within 60 seconds. Crucially, it will be carried out by members of the community, volunteers trained in performing the tests. “The community lead this themselves, that’s the important thing,” he says. “Not only in creating responses to this kind of situation, but ensuring that they [the people who need it] find it.”
Adam explains this peer-led element is essential both for encouraging gay, bisexual and trans men to get tested in the first place, but also making it comfortable and accessible to do something which is so touched with stigma. For example, there may be issues of shame and secrecy attached to going to a clinic or doctor to get tested initially. “It’s not just about testing, but about creating a holistic environment,” he says, which will break down barriers and allow the essential health services to be delivered in a sustainable and coordinated way.
The grassroots, community-based aspect of the programme is its most unique and strongest factor. In response to a question about his favourite part of the process so far, Shanley unhesitatingly named the community aspect. “It was the community developing this. It’s so heartening to hear, ‘this is something we want and need’. As a community”, he continued, “we’ve grown up very fast: and that means having to have grown-up conversations about the things which affect us.”
The Equal Marriage referendum, the repeal of the 8th Amendment, the availability of PrEP and the Undetectable=Untransmittable campaign, have all been part of that.
Working with a variety of different people, including the HSE, activists, and the HIV Ireland organisation has, he said, been “a real joy”.
The programme’s outreach services will also be made available in different locations within the community including dating apps, clubs, bars, and ‘sex on premises’ venues - gay saunas, and sex clubs. These venues will display discreet information on how to access clinics and further resources around HIV and STI’s, and there will be physical items like condoms and lube available in these venues also.
Shanley talked about how the programme aims to facilitate an attitude shift, going from a place of “this is bad” which doesn’t help much, to a sex-positive, judgement free space, with the aim being to empower people with the knowledge of how to reduce harm and make sure all the elements are in place for safer sex.
These outreach and advocacy plans, along with the funding, will allow MPOWER to “dig deeper” into the reason behind the rise in STI’s among gay and bisexual men, carrying out research and exploring potential underlying social issues. Shanley hopes that because of this, some of the more ingrained prejudices and policies, such as the discriminatory ban on blood donation by gay and bisexual men, will be challenged. Returning to the theme of empowerment, he discusses how research-based campaigns such as this one can help fight prejudice in the long term, enabling people to call out biased discrimination.
In relation to Shanley’s hopes for the future of the programme, he spoke about widening its reach outside of the “critical mass” of gay and bisexual men in Dublin. Although the programme is currently set to focus on Dublin, it has already started moving to the hinterland, and Shanley is hopeful that they will continue to get the backing they need to develop. “We ultimately want this to lead to better sexual health outcomes for the whole community.”
MPOWER will be launched in IMMA on February 20, at 6pm.