Efforts to reduce HIV transmission among UK gay and bisexual men over the past decade have failed, according to a new study.
The research published in today’s Lancet (1 Feburary) shows that infection rates have remained stable despite increased testing and treatment.
While there has been a four-fold increase in testing rate and an advance in treatment uptake from 69 to 80 percent, new infections in England and Wales have flat-lined at 2,300 to 2,500 a year.
Researchers suggested that the trend may be caused by a rise in unsafe sex as men no longer view HIV infection as deadly, while internet dating sites make finding a partner increasingly easier.
The World Health Organization and the UK Medical Association recommend treatment to HIV positive people only when their immune systems weaken below a certain point.
The research team led by Daniela de Angelis at the UK Medical Research Council and the Health Protection Agency, however, suggests that more target testing and earlier treatment may be needed to control HIV infection rate in gay and bisexual men.
‘There is no indication so far that the increased rates of testing and widened access to treatment have controlled HIV transmission in MSM in England and Wales’, concluded the team.
Sir Nick Partridge, chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust, commented on the study saying: ‘These findings highlight the real challenges faced by HIV prevention work, which need much greater attention.
‘We have shown that effective testing campaigns have brought down the time to diagnosis of HIV.
‘We’re currently trying to make it even easier to test by sending out home sampling kits to gay men who cannot get to clinics, and by lobbying the Government to make full self testing legal in the UK.
‘However, a large proportion of new infections come from men who are recently infected themselves, so testing and treatment, while vital, are not the only answer.
‘We need a comprehensive effort to reach gay men about HIV, from appropriate sex education in schools through to public health action from local authorities’.
Yusef Azad, director of policy at the National AIDS Trust said the findings made ‘depressing reading.
‘Around seven gay or bisexual men a day in the UK are getting HIV. To tackle this issue we urgently need the HIV epidemic amongst gay and bisexual men to be treated as a public health priority’.
Azad stated that prevention services have been under-resourced and do not address specific issues related to gay and bisexual men, such as drug use, mental health issues and the gay scene.
Azad called for a ‘new approach to prevention for gay and bisexual men which, in addition to continuing condom promotion’ will address the specific issues he mentioned, that have so far been poorly targeted.