The U.K. has now the largest HIV population ever in UK’s history and new infections are again rising. A group in particular has been challenging prevention programs: diagnosis amongst gay men aged 15-24 almost doubled over the last decade.
“There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all. It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure.” These were the first lines of the public information commercial “Don’t die of ignorance” launched in 1987 by Thatcher’s government to inform Britons about the risks of the HIV. Almost 30 years after the initiative, London’s first wide campaign tries to address a new HIV rise in the UK.
In May a £1,3 million media campaign was launched by London HIV Prevention Programme to increase testing and condom use in the capital.
The initiative, called Do It London, includes advertising in 200 phone boxes across the capital and the distribution of 1.5 million condoms and lubricant sachets to a minimum of 80 gay men at specific venues across London and at events, such as the Pride London parade.
“London boroughs are determined to reduce the prevalence of HIV and the launch of the ‘Do It London’ campaign marks an important step in raising awareness of testing across the capital,” said Teresa O’Neill, London Councils’ Executive member for health, in a press statement.
Around 107,000 people live now with the infection in the UK, the largest HIV population ever in UK’s history, and more than a third of people living with the disease are Londoners.
New infections are also higher in the capital compared to other regions in the country. According to Public Health England (PHE), 33 per cent of the 6,000 new HIV cases diagnosed in the UK in 2013 were in London.
In the map below it is possible to see the HIV prevalence for each borough in the capital. The darker the area, the higher is the prevalence of positive diagnosis. Click in the image for accessing an interactive version of the map:
Challenge in reaching young gay men
Amongst those new infected, gay and bissexual men are at greater risk of contracting new infections. According to PHE, this group was responsible for 62 per cent of new HIV cases in 2013.
But is the rise in infections amongst young gay men that has been challenging prevention programs.
New infections among those aged 15-24 have almost doubled over the last decade, from 8.7 per cent to 16 per cent of new cases identified in the UK.
In the graphic bellow it is possible to see the evolution of new infections involving this group:
“In reaching young men who have sex with men, it is important that we adapt and change our approach to ensure our message stays relevant,” says Justin Harbottle, programme officer at Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), which manages the HIV Prevention Program in the UK.
“We know increasingly that social media is particularly important for young men who have sex with men especially, with a very high proportion using sites like Facebook, and with apps like Grindr and Tinder becoming the most important places for guys to meet other men.”
Organizations have also been experimenting with dating apps such as Grindr and Tinder, which are widely used by gay men for meeting new partners.
“All of our campaigns have been promoted on smartphone apps and websites like Grindr, with a single Grindr push message generating over 1,000 postal tests. We know for over a third of people who ordered a kit, this was their first HIV test, and for many, was a first easier step before going to a GUM clinic,” says Harbottle.
Sex education in schools
Another crucial tool for HIV prevention among young gay men is more information, especially at schools. A recent survey by National Aids Trust revealed that over a quarter of gay men aged 15-24 did not know how HIV was passed on.
A research by Ofsted conducted in 2013 identified that sex and relationships education required improvement in over a third of schools, adding that lack of proper sex education leave “some children and young people unprepared for the physical and emotional changes they will experience during puberty, and later when they grow up and form adult relationships.”
For THT, there is a clear correlation between HIV rise among young gay men and lack of appropriate information at schools.
“The increase in HIV infections reinforces the need for statutory sex and relationships education that is inclusive of different sexualities and genders. It can fully equip all young people with the skills they need, not only to prevent pregnancies, but also to protect themselves from STIs and realise enjoyable and healthy relationships.
“Until we have this in place, we will always be playing catch up with young gay men in terms of sexual health education,” highlights Harbottle.
London’s campaign adds to national initiatives for fighting the rise in HIV in the UK such as It Starts with Me and the National HIV Testing Week, which promotes testing and condom use at a national-level.
PHP estimates that almost a quarter of HIV positive in the UK don’t know they are infected. Increased testing is seen as key for fighting the spread of the virus as people who are not tested may be infected and can pass on the virus without knowing it. Later diagnosis can also increase the chances of death by Aids.