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HIV infection rate in gay men drops for the first time

By Ross Semple

Public Health England has recorded a drop in the number of gay men being diagnosed with HIV in London.

It is the first drop in the rate of new diagnoses among gay men since the HIV epidemic began. Between October 2015 and September 2016, there were 32% fewer diagnoses of HIV in gay men compared to the previous year. The results come from five of London’s biggest sexual health clinics.

Public Health England puts this down to more frequent testing and quicker treatments for those who are infected, with antiviral drugs prescribed more rapidly than ever before.

Gay men account for around 50% of those living with HIV in the UK.

The body also cites the prevalence of the HIV prevention drug PrEP among London’s gay men as a reason for the fall in diagnoses. PrEP is currently unavailable on the NHS in England and Wales, but many source the drug privately, while others are involved in trials to assess the drug’s effectiveness.

Valerie Delpech, head of HIV surveillance for Public Health England, welcomed the findings, telling The Guardian: “Basically we are witnessing a phenomenal experiment. We are observing it. What we are seeing is the first downturn of the HIV epidemic in gay men.”

Delpech is confident that the results can be replicated across the country if similar steps are taken.

“There is absolutely no reason why we cannot scale that up to further reduce new infections in gay men – and also in all people who may be at risk of HIV in the UK, regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexuality.”

Dr Michael Brady, medical director of the Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “This points towards what can be achieved when we utilise all the weapons in our arsenal against HIV transmission. This includes access to condoms, testing, PrEP and diagnosing and treating people as early as possible so they can become uninfectious.

“This is extremely positive news for gay and bisexual men, who continue to be one of the groups most affected by HIV. However, it is no time for complacency and we must keep this momentum going, so we can see the same thing happening in other at-risk communities across the country and bring the epidemic to an end.”

Attitude’s Editor-in-Chief Matt Cain recently went on PrEP to explore the stigma around the drug, and find out what taking PrEP really entails. “I knew that PrEP was a hot topic in our community,” Matt says, “and at first I had mixed feelings about it myself – I could understand the arguments both for and against making it available on the NHS in the whole of the UK.

“I thought that going on it myself would allow me to work out how I really felt and to separate the facts from the many myths clouding the debate.” Matt’s PrEP journey is documented in the July issue of Attitude.

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