New HIV diagnoses in gay and bisexual men in the UK at their lowest in 20 years

HIV Public Health England

New HIV diagnoses in gay and bisexual men are at their lowest in 20 years, according to Public Health England (PHE).

There were 1,700 new HIV diagnoses in gay and bisexual men in 2019, the lowest figure since 2000 when 1,500 queer men were diagnosed with the virus.

The public health body said HIV transmission among gay and bisexual men has fallen by 80 per cent since its peak in 2011, when 2,700 queer men were thought to have contracted the virus.

The number of people diagnosed differs from the number of new infections, as people can live for years with HIV before being diagnosed. Public Health England estimates that there were just 540 new infections among gay and bisexual men in 2019.

The overall rate of new HIV diagnoses – including heterosexual people who contract the virus – is also declining, the report found.

In total, there were 4,139 diagnoses of HIV in 2019 compared to 4,580 in 2018 – a 10 per cent drop in new cases of the virus.

The number of people receiving a late diagnosis of HIV is also declining, but this figure is not going down at a fast enough rate.

Some 42 per cent of new cases in 2019 were late diagnoses. Being diagnosed with the virus late increases the risk of developing serious health issues.

People diagnosed with HIV late in 2019 have an eight-fold risk of death compared to those diagnosed promptly, according to Public Health England.

The report credited the drop in HIV transmission to the prevention techniques such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), the use of condoms, regular sexual health testing, and the effective use of anti-retroviral therapy for people who have been diagnosed with the virus.

HIV transmission will keep going down if ‘inequalities’ around ‘sexuality, ethnicity and geography’ are addressed.

By taking regular anti-retroviral medication, people with HIV can successfully reduce their viral load, making the virus undetectable and untransmittable, meaning it cannot be passed on through condomless sex.

However, there is still work to be done to increase the rate of HIV testing. Almost 300,000 people refused a HIV test at sexual health services.

Gay and bisexual men are the group that is least likely to turn down a test, with just four per cent turning down the option at sexual health services in 2019.

Further progress can only be achieved if we also address the inequalities in reducing HIV transmission that exist around sexuality, ethnicity and geography.

It is thought that transmission is dropping among gay and bisexual men in part because they are more likely to engage with sexual health services.

Dr Valerie Delpech, head of HIV surveillance at Public Health England, said “great progress” has been made in the fight to eliminate HIV by 2030.

“Further progress can only be achieved if we also address the inequalities in reducing HIV transmission that exist around sexuality, ethnicity and geography,” she said.

Public Health England urged people to continue using preventive measures such as PrEP and condoms to help bring the rate of transmission down even further.

The news was welcomed by Ian Green, chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust, who said the drop in transmission is “a testament to what we can achieve the new utilise everything we have in the fight against HIV”.

However, he noted that the drop among gay and bisexual men would have been even greater if PrEP had been rolled out across the country.

Green said: “If the government, NHS England and local public health commissioners want to see 2019 levels of reduction for gay and bisexual men across all groups, PrEP needs to be far better known and be available in GP surgeries, gender clinics, pharmacies and as part of maternity care.

“In a year when so much focus has been on inequality and the Black Lives Matter movement, today’s HIV statistics show that some communities are being left behind in the fight against HIV.

“PrEP works for everyone – regardless of gender, sexuality, geography or ethnicity – but you can’t access something you don’t know about.”

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