HIV Rates Soaring in London
HIV infections among gay men in London are soaring, and sexual health workers attribute it to a "chaotic and harmful" link between high-risk drug use and gay sex in the capital. Stigma also plays a strong role, with many gay men in London unwilling to ask too many questions about their sexual partners.
"A lot of gay men who are involved in this scene hook up online and search for others who want to have unprotected sex and take drugs," Ant, a 35-year-old man in Southeast London told The Independent. "Although I think there is awareness of HIV among the gay community, it’s still a taboo and there’s a real stigma surrounding it. A younger gay man in his 20s once told me that I didn’t look ill -- so how could I have HIV?"
Latest figures from Public Health England show that the rate of infection in the capital rose more than 20 per cent in 2012. Charities have warned that the virus is once again one of the most serious public health crises in the UK today.
Across the country, rates of infection were up by 8 per cent to 3,240 new infections among men who have sex with men. In London alone there were 1,720 new infections, with that figure likely to be revised up to nearly 2,000, figures published in The Lancet revealed.
Rates of transmission are likely to have been increased by irresponsible use of needles during drug-taking, but also because of a rise in people having unprotected sex while high on drugs.
Many MSM today view the antiretroviral treatments for HIV as only a minor deterrence to living with HIV. This leads to low rates of safer sex and HIV testing, and it can lead to the escalation of HIV infection and serious illness.
Although some of this year’s increase was attributed to more widespread HIV testing, with the number of tests in London up 17 per cent since 2011, Public Health England said there was "anecdotal evidence from drug and alcohol clinics in London that recreational drug use amongst gay men is a growing issue."
Concerns were raised earlier this year over increasing numbers of men smoking, snorting and injecting party drugs such as crystal methamphetamine and mephedrone, often in combination with sex parties.
David Stuart, manager of the specialist CODE clinic in Soho, run in association with the sexual health clinic 56 Dean Street, told The Independent that 99 per cent of his clients only used the drugs for sex. Emotionally vulnerable men -- often HIV positive -- found that they could only enjoy sex while on drugs, he said.
"There are of course lots of gay men out there who have great, long-term relationships and a great understanding of their sexuality and romantic lives. But there are an increasing number of men that are struggling with that and using drugs to manage the confusion that they’re experiencing -- and that number is growing and the culture is becoming more chaotic and harmful," he said.
The association of party drugs with gay sex has been observed in other cities, with large gay scenes such as San Francisco, Melbourne and Sydney.
The Lancet also reported a rise in gay men having sex without condoms, with anecdotal evidence of HIV negative men borrowing four days’ worth of HIV medication from HIV positive friends in order to have sex without condoms at sex parties with HIV positive men -- a preventative measure that has not been proven effective.
Prevention organizations said that more needed to be done by London local authorities to provide specialist services that could advise gay men about precautions when encountering "community norms of using drugs for sex."
"There is a need for a greater focus within London HIV prevention work on helping gay men who are encountering difficulties with drugs and safer sex and also on encouraging others to avoid these problems and resist peer pressure," said Lisa Power, Policy Director for the Terrence Higgins Trust.
And Yusef Azad, director of policy and campaigns at the National AIDS Trust (NAT) said that, on average, five gay men in London are diagnosed with HIV every day.
"This is one of the most serious public health issues we face in the UK and it must be treated as a public health priority," he said. "NAT recently called on London Councils to address the issue of problematic drug use amongst many gay men which is fueling HIV transmission in the Capital. We want to see sexual health services which are better at identifying drug issues and drugs services which feel comfortable discussing the sexual context of gay men’s drug use."