UK government is failing gay men on HIV

3,000+ new diagnoses, no big anti-HIV campaigns

By Peter Tatchell

London – 1 December 2012 – Gay Star News

New diagnoses of HIV among gay and bisexual men in the UK have been increasing since 2007, with 3,010 infections recorded in 2011, according to figures released this week by the Health Protection Agency.

The HPA reports that prevalence of HIV among the general population in 2011 was 1.5 per 1,000, but among men who have sex with men the rate is 31 times higher, 47 per 1,000.

Almost two-thirds of gay and bisexual men who were newly diagnosed as HIV-infected had not attended a clinic for testing in the previous three years.

Quite clearly, the UK government’s HIV strategy is flawed. It is failing gay and bisexual men. Ministers have dropped the ball. They’re complacent.

Moreover, too many gay and bisexual are not taking HIV seriously and not getting regular check ups.

In 2011, there were 6,280 new HIV diagnoses in the UK – just under half acquired heterosexually and just over half contracted homosexually.

Despite this shocking scale of new infections, there are no major public HIV awareness and prevention campaigns – let alone any that target gay and bisexual men. Where are the safer sex TV and billboard adverts?

Each new generation needs educating about risky behaviour, and older generations need reminding and encouraging, so they sustain safer sex.

HIV education is woefully inadequate in most schools. Teaching pupils how to roll a condom on a banana is not good enough. Very few students learn what to do if a partner refuses to wear a condom ie. how to negotiate safer sex. There is no popularisation of less risky alternatives to intercourse, such as body rubbing, oral sex and mutual masturbation. These safer alternatives should be explained, glamorised and encouraged, in all secondary schools.

In addition, the safer sex information taught in schools is mostly oriented to heterosexual sex. Gay and bisexual students, and the many straight kids who experiment with homosexuality, get no specific advice on how to have gay sex safely.

Too many faith schools and independent schools are neglecting their pupil’s HIV education. They put their own religious dogmas and embarrassment about sexual matters before the health and welfare of young people. This neglect happens because the government too often allows schools to avoid their responsibilities.

Age-appropriate frank and detailed HIV awareness and prevention education should be mandatory in all schools from primary level onwards, before pupils become sexually active and adopt unsafe sexual habits. If safer sex is imbibed at an early age, it is more likely to be practised when a person is older.

The needs of gay and bisexual men continue to be under-resourced, with funding being cut to agencies, such as Gay Men Fighting AIDS, that specialise in safer sex education for men who have sex with men.

Moreover, the limited gay-focussed HIV prevention campaigns that continue to be funded don’t seem to be working, as evidenced by the number of new HIV infections. An estimated one in 20 gay men nationwide have HIV, and one in 11 in London have the virus. Among men who regularly go to gay bars, clubs and saunas, the rate of infection is estimated to be one in 8.

Having won so many gains in terms of legal rights and social acceptance, I want my gay and bisexual brothers to remain safe and healthy, so they can enjoy the benefits of equality.

To this end, the government and HIV charities should rethink safer sex advertising campaigns. Some of them need to be more hard-hitting and impactive.

We’ve got to cut the level of new infections in the LGBT community. A bit of ‘shock and awe’ may be more effective, at least for some people. Making them witness the long-term reality of HIV might be a wake-up call. It could help undermine the frequent blase attitude that HIV can be solved by popping a daily pill.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, although HIV is increasingly a manageable condition like diabetes, some people with the virus are still dying and others are prone to more secondary illnesses, discomforting side effects and a shorter life expectancy.

We can’t carry on with the current rate of new gay and straight HIV infections. It’s straining the NHS during a period of austerity and, more importantly, turning too many people’s lives upside down.