New infections of HIV have fallen in the UK despite worsening sexual health among young people, official figures show. For the first time since the global epidemic began more than 25 years ago, newly diagnosed cases of HIV declined, from 7,900 in 2005 to an estimated 7,800 last year.
Among the group at highest risk – gay men – the HIV infection rate is continuing to increase and has risen 20 per cent in the past five years. Safe-sex messages and condom use are still being ignored by this group, experts said.
New infections among heterosexuals have been falling since 2003 and the decline accelerated in 2006. Three-fifths of heterosexual cases were infected outside the UK, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, and changes in migration patterns are likely to account for the fall, according to the Health Protection Agency, (HPA) which published the figures.
Heterosexual infections contracted in the UK increased last year, from 700 to 750 cases. The majority of the partners who passed on the infection in these cases were themselves infected outside the United Kingdom. Despite the overall fall in new HIV diagnoses, the number living with HIV rose to a record 73,000 last year, owing to improved treatments and a declining death rate. Life expectancy among people diagnosed with HIV is the same as for those with diabetes.
Many of those infected do not know that they are carrying the virus and are not tested for HIV even when they attend a sexually transmitted infection clinic. A quarter of HIV-infected heterosexual men and women and almost half of men who have sex with men left clinics last year unaware of their HIV infection.
The HPA said yesterday that clinics should routinely offer an HIV test to all patients, with regular testing for gay men, in addition to testing for other sexually transmitted infections.
Overall, the upward trend in sexually transmitted infections, which have grown by 63 per cent in a decade, continued last year. The total rose by 2.4 per cent in 2006 to 621,300, of which 60 per cent were new cases. The biggest increases were in cases of genital herpes, genital warts and chlamydia, the commonest sexually transmitted infection (STI). Cases of that disease rose by 4 per cent to 113,485. Professor Peter Borriello, director of the Centre for Infections at the HPA said: "We have to get the message across that a casual shag should not mean syphilis, gonorrhoea, chlamydia or any other STI. We need to change attitudes to condom use. It should be clunk-click every trip.
"We need to reinforce the safe-sex message for gay men, young adults and the broader community. The best way to protect yourself from contracting an STI including HIV is by practising safer sex using a condom with all new and casual partners."
Valerie Delpech, head of HIV surveillance at the HPA, said: "The sexual health of young people has worsened in 2006. Those worst affected are men who have sex with men, young people and black Africans and Caribbeans."
Nick Partridge, chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust, said: "The HIV epidemic in the UK is getting worse. We can't tackle it on our own. We need more investment in HIV prevention, more HIV testing in local communities and stronger national leadership. This is a real test for national government and local health services – and one we can't afford to fail."
HIV in the UK
* Estimated number of new cases of HIV diagnosed in 2006
* Percentage increase in new HIV cases 1997 to 2005
* Decrease in number of new HIV cases 2005 to 2006
* Number living with HIV in 2006
* Deaths from Aids in 2006Reuse content