HIV Infection In UK Increases To 63,500

The relentless rise of HIV and other sexual infections in the UK is continuing, with evidence that some groups in the population are ignoring warnings and still engaging in risky sexual behaviour, according to figures published yesterday. There are now 63,500 adults living with HIV infection in the UK, of whom 7,450 were diagnosed during 2005, according to the Health Protection Agency. It is 25 years since Aids was identified and surveillance began. The UK is ahead of most countries in its efforts to prevent infection and treat it, and yet the spread in this country has not been checked, the HPA acknowledged yesterday.

“The UK’s response has been one of the best in the world, but this is no time for complacency,” said Dr Valerie Delpech, a consultant epidemiologist with the agency.

The increase among men who have sex with men – the first group in the UK to be affected – is giving cause for concern.

Last year there were more new diagnoses among gay men than ever before. While that may be partly due to more men coming forward for testing, it is feared that the gay community is indulging in high-risk sexual behaviour and failing to use condoms. Other sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis and gonorrhoea, are also on the increase among men who have sex with men. Gonorrhoea is rising even though the number of people infected in the heterosexual population is falling. Worryingly, there has been a dramatic rise in the numbers of cases where ciprofloxacin – the antibiotic used to treat it – has not worked, because the microbe has become resistant to it.

“There is clear data showing that the safe sex messages are not being adhered to as much as they might be in the gay community,” said Noel Gill, head of the agency’s HIV and sexually transmitted diseases department. “We have all been surprised in the HIV world that we’re still having such high levels of transmission. The original thought that large-scale treatment would reduce transmission has turned out to be an optimistic idea that clearly has failed – so it is back to behaviour change.” Those who are tested and prove positive for HIV are monitored and given antiretroviral treatment once the virus begins to take a toll, which stabilises them and enables them to lead a normal life, although it is not a cure.

Because drugs lower the viral load, a person on treatment also becomes less likely to infect others. However, said Barry Evans, deputy director of the HPA’s Centre for Infection, people are most infectious soon after contracting HIV, and often before they know they have it.

As yet nobody knows how long people will survive, since the drugs have only been used in their present form for about a decade. But many people are turning up at clinics or GP surgeries too late to have the best possible chance of survival.

The HPA says the strategy for avoiding HIV/Aids is simple – use condoms, as advocated in the government’s latest sexual health campaign for young people – and get tested regularly if you are in a high-risk group. Infections are also rising in the heterosexual community, most of them among people who acquired HIV in Africa, although increasing numbers of infections are occurring in the UK.