Gay men ignoring advice on Aids avoidance

GAYS in one of Britain's main hotspots for HIV-transmission are still practising widespread unsafe sex, according to the largest survey conducted of the homosexual community.

Project Zorro, a survey of the sexual lifestyle of gay men comes at a time when Brighton's HIV infection rate has increased at 12 times the national average.

Gay activists claim that anti-HIV spending has often not been clearly targeted at gay men, despite the fact that most infections involve them. In Brighton, the figure is 90 per cent.

Zorro researchers, whose report was largely funded by the local gay business community, collated evidence from 1,200 gay and bisexual men in the town, producing unequivocal evidence that widespread knowledge of safe sex practices was not matched by actual sexual habits. An estimated one in three sexual acts was unsafe.

A quarter of gay men surveyed did not know or ask about the HIV status of their sexual partners; at least three-quarters, including a significant slice of these in long-term relationships, indulged in casual sex with "trade"; many thought HIV infection levels were static or even falling; the use of Aids helplines was minimal; and gay men tended to avoid using clinics for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

James Ledward, a Project Zorro organiser, described Zorro's key findings as "deeply disturbing".

"What the research shows very strongly is that gay men do not associate themselves with HIV. We're paying the price for everybody thinking it was sussed down here. But it isn't."

The only HIV prevention measure that received a qualified thumbs-up was the health authority's annual distribution of tens of thousands of condoms. "They've been doing it the same way for 10 years and it's now clear it isn't working," said Mr Ledward. "So something new has to be tried. They should work with gay community groups to put HIV back on the agenda to make gay men start taking responsibility for their health."

Gay pressure groups in other parts of Britain have felt equally excluded and bitter about cross-funding of HIV prevention cash into non-gay categories. In Bristol, nearly pounds 1m from the HIV prevention budget was spent on drug subculture problems and less than pounds 80,000 was targeted on gay men, who accounted for 60 per cent of all HIV cases. In the north-west London boroughs of Brent and Harrow, the lion's share of prevention is directed to ethnic issues despite the fact that the majority of HIV infections involve gay or bisexual men.

East Sussex Health Authority spent pounds 5.7m on HIV and Aids prevention and care last year, and will spend pounds 7.4m in 1998-99. With increasingly large tranches used for important drug treatments, spending on prevention has remained static at pounds 1.1m. Of that, about pounds 750,000 is supposedly ring- fenced for gay men, bisexuals and injecting drug users.

Today, Mr Ledward and the Project Zorro committee will ask East Sussex Health Authority to appoint a gay HIV prevention co-ordinator, and direct about pounds 50,000 into prevention activities and establish a specifically gay STD clinic. The health authority said it did not wish to comment in advance of the publication of the report.

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