Comment: Information and early diagnosis will be key to tackling HIV

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Another World AIDS Day has come around and although much has been achieved in the last year, there is still a huge amount to do in the year ahead to continue tackling HIV among the gay community in the UK.

The HPA released worrying statistics this week which showed the highest number ever of gay men were diagnosed with HIV in 2010. In addition, over the last decade, there has been an 86% increase in new diagnoses of gay men outside London – where there is less targeted HIV prevention activity.

It is clear from these figures we need to intensify and enhance our prevention efforts through more regular testing to diagnose HIV early, and we need greater investment for HIV prevention targeting gay men outside London (as well as continuing in London, of course). We also need to breathe new life into the ‘use a condom’ message and offer one-to-one behaviour interventions for gay men who want support in safer sex.

The benefits of an early HIV diagnosis are huge. Not only are most new HIV infections accounted for by those who don’t know they have HIV, the negative impact on health is greatly reduced if treatment is started early and before the virus has a chance to do any long-lasting damage to the immune system. We also know that HIV treatment has great preventive benefits, so all in all, if a person is diagnosed early they will be healthier, have a better prognosis for the future, and are less likely to pass the infection on.

On the flip side, a late diagnosis could mean having lived with HIV for up to five years without knowing it, by which time the HIV has put a huge strain on the immune system, and both the chances of an earlier death and possibly having passed it on to sexual partners are significantly increased.

It is crucial for gay men to be educated on spotting the signs of early HIV infection, to encourage self-referral for HIV testing. Research carried out by NAT in partnership with Gaydar (among over 8,000 gay men) found that 60% of gay men incorrectly believe there are no symptoms of early HIV infection. In fact, the most common symptoms of early HIV infection are a combination of sore throat, rash and fever and between 70-90% of people experience this soon after HIV infection.

This lack of knowledge is extremely worrying as spotting the signs of recent HIV infection presents one of the best opportunities to get diagnosed early. Ignorance of these facts increases the risk to your own health and to the health of your sexual partners. Of course, if you know you’ve put yourself at risk, you shouldn’t wait around for symptoms – or think if you don’t experience symptoms then you don’t have HIV! – you should get yourself tested as soon as possible. But the fact is, we know many gay men are not good at assessing their own risk behaviour and this is where spotting symptoms can serve as a vital lifeline for early diagnosis.

Another issue which NAT is working to tackle is the high levels of HIV and hepatitis C co-infection among gay men. There are a significant proportion of HIV positive gay men who also have hep C in the UK and liver disease caused by hep B and/or C is a leading cause of serious illness and death in people who are HIV/Hepatitis C co-infected. NAT will be launching an in-depth report on this issue in the near future calling for the prevention of hepatitis C in HIV positive gay men to be made a health priority.

NAT has also been very active in trying to expand the reach of informative and educational HIV information by maximising the use of technology. We recently launched, a brand new interactive website aimed at everyone. HIVaware contains all the basic HIV information which everyone should know, whilst busting myths and misconceptions, answering FAQs and giving people ideas of how to get involved. We’ve also revamped our web information for people living with HIV,, making it more digestible and interactive. Ensuring our web information is accessible as possible is a key element of getting our messages across to key audiences and the public in general.

As always, fundraising continues to be the lifeblood of the organisation and this is tougher than ever in the current climate. NAT’s work is often under the radar of the general public and for this reason we rely on the generous support of those who understand the importance of tackling HIV in the UK and championing the rights of people living with HIV. Look out for NAT’s events in the coming year and we welcome all your support.

Deborah Jack is the Chief Executive of the National AIDS Trust, a charity which campaigns to transform society’s response to HIV through fresh thinking, expertise and practical resources.