Sharp rise in heterosexual HIV cases

Health Protection Agency calls for wider testing after release of new figures
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The number of people infected with HIV acquired through heterosexual contact in the UK has almost doubled in four years, figures issued yesterday show. There were 960 new diagnoses in 2007 compared with 540 in 2003, the Health Protection Agency said.

Although the bulk of the 4,260 new infections diagnosed in this country last year were acquired abroad, the sharp increase contracted in the UK has taken them from one in 10 to almost one in four of all heterosexual cases.

A spokesman for the HPA said the UK heterosexual cases were concentrated in the African community, and most were infected by partners infected abroad. "They are quite small numbers and although they were acquired in the UK they are linked with people who have travelled," he said.

The annual figures published by the agency yesterday show an estimated 77,400 people living with HIV in the UK of whom more than a quarter – 20,000 people – are unaware they are infected.

The agency backed proposals published in September by three Aids organisations for wider testing, including an HIV test for all new patients registering with a GP or attending hospitals in areas with more than two cases per 1,000 population. Cases are highest in London but other towns with high rates include Luton, Watford, Slough, Brighton, Bournemouth, Eastbourne, Northampton, Nottingham, Blackpool and Manchester.

Valerie Delpech, head of HIV surveillance, said: "It is very worrying that so many people are unaware of their HIV status. Wider testing in high-prevalence areas is urgently needed."

The figures show a continuing rise in infections among gay men who accounted for 41 per cent (3,160) of the 7,734 new diagnoses. Almost a third of infections identified last year were diagnosed late – delaying treatment.

Lisa Power of the Terrence Higgins trust said: "Gay men and African people are most likely to have undiagnosed HIV in the UK so we would urge people in these groups in particular to recognise their level of risk and get tested for HIV regularly."

Deborah Jack, chief executive of the National Aids Trust, said: "Most worrying is the number of people who should be on HIV treatment but who are not because they are unaware of their infection or because they are opting not to start treatment. People with HIV can expect a good life expectancy if they are diagnosed early and take medication as advised."

Sandra Gidley, health spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "These figures are the legacy of a government which has left sexual health services by the wayside. Ministers must introduce changes recommended by the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV. It is crucial we ensure future generations are not put at risk."

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