Health: Patients unaware they have HIV

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The Independent Online
More than 600 men and women carrying the Aids virus treated at sexually transmitted disease clinics did not know they were HIV positive, a survey has found.

Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor, reports on how ignorance is putting lives at risk.

Anonymous testing of patients attending sexually transmitted disease clinics in London and the south-east has revealed that, of those tested, more than a third of homosexual men and a half of heterosexual men and women carrying the virus did not know they were infected.

HIV-positive patients who do not know they carry the virus cannot start drug treatment to prevent Aids developing and may pose a risk to others if they do not adopt safe sex techniques. New combination drug therapies have transformed the outlook for patients with the virus by delaying the onset of Aids and converting a death sentence into a chronic condition.

The annual survey, by the Public Health laboratory Service, also found that 77 per cent of HIV-positive pregnant women attending the clinics did not know they were infected with the virus. By taking anti-Aids drugs and avoiding breast feeding, infected women can reduce by two-thirds the chances of their babies being born with the disease.

Dr Diana Wolford, director of the Public Health Laboratory Service, said: "Unless individuals are tested they are unable to benefit from recent advances in treatment and also continue to run the risk of unwittingly infecting others."

The anonymous testing, begun in 1990, is carried out to establish the spread of the disease.

The figures show that 358 HIV-positive homosexual men, 36 per cent of those treated in STD clinics in London and the south-east in 1995 and 1996, were unaware that they carried the virus. This rose to 45 per cent of heterosexual women (118) and 55 per cent of heterosexual men (142). Among HIV-positive pregnant women, 77 per cent (302) did not know they were infected. The figure has led some consultants to call for routine HIV testing to be introduced in ante-natal clinics.

Among the most disturbing findings in the report is that 140 HIV-positive homosexual or bisexual men attending an STD clinic also had a new sexually transmitted disease, implyingthey had continued to practise unsafe sex. In nearly two-thirds of these cases the men knew they were infected and were continuing to put their partners at risk.