Press Release: Almost half of gay and bisexual men struggled to access HIV and Sexual Health Services During COVID-19, new report finds

9th March 2022

HIV Ireland has today launched the findings of a nationwide survey which details the impact the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions have had on the sexual health and wellbeing of gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men (gbMSM). Findings from the large quantitative survey into the Effects of COVID-19 and Government Restrictions on the Sexual Health and Well-being of Gay and Bisexual Men in Ireland (EMERGE) received almost 1,000 responses from across Ireland. 46% of respondents reported difficulty accessing sexual health services during the pandemic with a fifth unable to access them at all. 82% of respondents who reported difficulties, were attempting to access STI testing while 73% were also seeking a test for HIV.  Half of those surveyed (51%) had difficulty accessing PrEP, a highly effective HIV prevention medication.

The EMERGE Survey, a partnership of HIV Ireland’s MPOWER Programme and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was conducted in June 2021 during the COVID-19 crisis. Findings show that 14% of respondents experienced symptoms of an STI and 7% reported self-medicating for an STI they thought they had during the pandemic.  While HIV medical care remained largely accessible throughout the pandemic, 13% of gbMSM living with HIV experienced disruption.

Speaking in advance of the launch Executive Director of HIV Ireland, Mr Stephen O’Hare said “The findings from this report confirm what many in community service provision have suspected – disruption to HIV and STI prevention services during the pandemic was profound and long lasting. New strategies and new approaches to our national pandemic response will be required to ensure that, going forward, difficulties encountered in accessing these services are addressed and service levels are further enhanced to meet demand,” he added.

The report also reveals considerable changes to sexual behaviour in the community of gay and bisexual men with 72% reporting they had no sex or that they reduced the amount of sex they were having during the pandemic. 42% of gbMSM employed a range of methods to reduce risk of acquiring COVID-19 during sex, including enhanced hygiene techniques, sex without mouth-to-mouth contact and wearing masks during sex.

Adam Shanley, MPOWER Programme Manager at HIV Ireland and co-author of the report said: “The findings of the EMERGE survey show that the widespread disruption to sexual health services throughout the country has resulted in significant barriers to accessing testing, treatment and prevention services – the likely impact is a rise in undiagnosed and untreated STIs in the community of gay and bisexual men, as well as missed prevention opportunities. As we move into a new phase of living with COVID-19, services must be appropriately resourced so that they can reopen fully with enough capacity to respond to a surge in sexual health needs.”

The report also found that Alcohol consumption changed for many during the pandemic, with 38% and 34% reporting their consumption had increased or decreased, respectively. 17% reported being concerned about their alcohol or drug use, however more than a quarter (27%) of respondents screened positive for alcohol use disorder. Additionally, while overall numbers engaging in chemsex, the use of drugs for sex, reduced from 14% as reported in a 2017 survey by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) to 8%, nearly half of those who did engage in chemsex increased the amount they were having.

“With only 3% of those concerned about their drug and alcohol use able to access support services without difficulty during the pandemic, and a further 16% saying they wouldn’t know where to access services – substance use is a clear area for further intervention,” continued Mr Shanley. “Ensuring gbMSM know how to access alcohol and drug services, and that these services are equipped to meet the specific additional needs of gbMSM, is critical,” he added.

Impact on mental health and wellbeing were felt by many gbMSM during the COVID-19 crisis. Overall, 75% described their mental health as being a little or a lot worse. As with sexual health, mental health services were largely not accessed with only 17% engaging with services despite clear evidence of increased need during this period. Impact on employment was also felt with 34% reporting having less income, being in receipt of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment or decreased working hours. Impacts on education were felt by a smaller proportion (24%), with 80% of impacted gbMSM reporting educational activities had moved online.

Dr Charles Witzel from University College London, who led the research as principle investigator, said “Gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men have distinct vulnerabilities related to sexual health, mental health, well-being and economic precarity relative to other groups. Our findings illustrate some of the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic and related government restrictions have destabilised health and well-being for this group,”continued Dr Witzel.“While certainly essential for saving lives and protecting the healthcare system from being overwhelmed, recovery efforts must address the disproportionate impact of these measures on marginalised groups, including gbMSM,” he added.

The EMERGE report will be launched at an event hosted by HIV Ireland at Lost Lane, Grafton Street, Dublin 2 from 6pm on Wednesday 9th of March. The event will include a community panel discussion.


Notes for Editors:

The full report can be accessed here.

The EMERGE report will be launched at an event hosted by HIV Ireland at Lost Lane, Grafton Street, Dublin 2 from 6pm on Wednesday 9th of March. The event will include a community panel discussion.

A photographer will attend and photos from the event will be shared with media and news desks.

Reference to 2017 EU report relates to the 2017 European Men Who Have Sex With Men Internet Survey (EMIS 2017). 

For media enquiries please contact:

Adam Shanley, MPOWER Programme Manager, HIV Ireland

Tel: 086 160 5290