Record number of HIV diagnoses alarms scientists

More cases of HIV transmission through gay sex were recorded in Britain in 1996 than in any other year, and the total number of HIV infections was the highest annual figure to date, according to the latest government statistics.The rise has renewed concern that some young gay and bisexual men may be ignoring the safer sex message, and no longer believe that HIV and Aids pose a threat to their lives.

Widespread publicity about new drugs that could eradicate the virus from the body in the short term may also have caused complacency among gays too young to have experienced the tragedies of the1980s. But, conversely, the new drugs may have encouraged testing.

The Public Health Laboratory Service says the 11 per cent rise in reported HIV transmissions through homosexual intercourse between 1995 and 1996 is "notable". In 1995, there were 1,474 cases reported, compared with 1,634 last year. The previous record figure was 1,627 in 1986. In 1996, the total number of HIV infections was 2,986. The PHLS warned that the latest figure might refer not to new transmissions, but to diagnoses. "People infected for some time may only now be coming forward. They may hear about the protease inhibitor drugs and combination therapies, and think they can improve their chances."

The Terrence Higgins Trust, which has continually promoted the safe sex message, said tar-geting younger men was impor- tant. Nick Partridge of THT said that in the UK only 60 to 65 per cent of gay men had been tested for HIV and few had routine tests. In the US, though, most men have regular tests.

The PHLS figures also show a continuing rise in the number of heterosexual transmissions of HIV in the UK. Janet Mortimer, a principal scientist at the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre, told Positive Nation, a gay newsletter, that scientists were "depressed" by the latest figures. There have been a total of 28,447 reports of HIV infection in the UK since 1984, and 13,720 cases of Aids, of whom 9,678 died.