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Aids adverts target gays for first time

Every eight hours in England a gay or bisexual man is infected with HIV, it was claimed yesterday at the launch of a new initiative, which has been dubbed by critics as the "re-gaying" of the Aids campaign.

HIV-positive men are the stars of the "Reality Campaign," which uses gay lifestyle images to promote safe sex as a way of life.

It is the first mass-media campaign for gay and bisexual men launched by the Terrence Higgins Trust, which has prev-iously used the gay press. The aim is to reach men who are not part of the gay scene.

But the campaign has provided some right wing commentators with opportunities for a bout of "we told you so". They say it is a vindication of their view that pounds 1.5bn of tax payers' money has been wasted on Aids education aimed at heterosexuals who were never at risk, and the figures do appear to support them.

A total of 16,303 gay and bisexual men have tested positive in the UK since 1982, and 6,611 have died from Aids. Of the 5,000 or so cases of HIV infection and 1,700 Aids cases in which the virus was transmitted through heterosexual intercourse, most followed sex with high-risk partners, or exposure to HIV abroad.

The vast majority of new HIV transmissions continue to occur among gay or bisexual men - up to 1,000 new infections a year - and an increase in other sexually-transmitted diseases suggests that unprotected sex between men is on the increase.

Critics, such as Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times, and Neville Hodgkinson, the former science correspondent of that paper, which ran a long and damaging campaign stating that HIV did not cause Aids (later picked up by the Daily Mail), say that this is, and always was, the reality of Aids in Britain.

They have accused the Government of falling prey to a gay conspiracy to push the myth of a heterosexual epidemic in order to boost funds for treatment of gay men, and some gay activists have confirmed this view. James Taylor, of the charity Gay Men Fighting Aids, said last week that the heterosexual fear factor had been introduced to persuade the Government to fund research.

"The money that we needed to combat the epidemic in the gay community would only have been forthcoming if the disease appeared likely to affect Middle England," he said.

However, public health experts are adamant that the Government's prompt action in the mid-1980s with hard-hitting campaigns, such as the infamous "icebergs and tombstones," aimed at heterosexuals, gay and bisexual men, and drug users, have resulted in Britain having the lowest Aids/HIV figures in Western Europe. Other factors, such as the British propensity for mono- gamy, may have played a part.

No one has calculated how many people, of whatever sexual persuasion, would have died if no action had been taken - the best riposte to Neil et al. But in the US, which has four times the population of the UK, the moral majority delayed the start of Aids prevention strategies. A total of 318,000 people have died there, compared with about 9,000 in the UK.

Nick Partridge, chief executive of THT, said last night that it would continue to target young people, drug users and other high risk groups, as it had since 1982. "It is ridiculous to say this is a 're-gaying' of Aids," he said. "We have an epidemic among gay men, and the potential for an epidemic in heterosexuals. It is not either a 'gay plague', or a disease that will affect everyone. There has to be a broad approach."