In the year leading to December 2021, 45 per cent of all new diagnoses were in gay and bisexual men, while 50 per cent were in heterosexual men or women.
Monday 7 February marks the beginning of the UK’s annual National HIV Testing Week which aims to promote regular testing and reduce late diagnoses.
HIV Prevention England estimates that almost 5,000 people were living with undiagnosed HIV in 2020.
The HSA found that heterosexual people were more likely to be diagnosed late, at a stage when damage to their immune systems had already begun.
Levels of HIV testing fell among all groups during the pandemic due to lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions, but heterosexual people were affected more than gay and bisexual men.
There was a 33 per cent drop in testing among heterosexual people, compared to a 7 per cent decrease in gay and bisexual men.
In 2020, 55 per cent and 51 per cent of heterosexual men and women, respectively, were diagnosed at a late stage compared to 29 per cent among gay and bisexual men.
Terrence Higgins Trust, a charity that campaigns for HIV education, said this is likely driven by a belief among heterosexual men and women “that they are not at risk of HIV, which is often reinforced by healthcare professionals”.
Jackie, a heterosexual woman living with HIV, said she had no idea women could get HIV until she tested positive.
“Not only did I never consider I could be living with HIV, neither did my doctor,” she said.
“If you have ever been sexually active you should test regularly, it only takes once unprotected. Knowing your status is best for you and everyone else in your life.”
While gay and bisexual men are still more impacted by HIV relative to population size, targeted interventions for these groups have led to a significant decrease in transmission.
This includes a growing availability of HIV prevention pill PrEP, routine HIV testing and rapid treatment which stops those who are diagnosed from passing on the infection.
HIV diagnoses among gay and bisexual men first decreased in 2014 and have been falling every year since, with a 70 per cent drop between 2004 and 2020.
Taku Mukiwa, head of health programmes at Terrence Higgins Trust commented: “For the first time in a decade there are more heterosexuals than gay and bisexual men being diagnosed with HIV. Heterosexuals also saw a far steeper drop in testing for HIV during COVID-19 lockdown and are far more likely to be diagnosed late.
“That’s why we need to see more heterosexuals getting tested to avoid anyone living with undiagnosed HIV for a long time. This is important for their own health as well as for efforts to stop HIV being passed on as the vast majority of people get HIV from someone who is unaware they have it.”
As part of National HIV Testing Week free HIV test kits are being made available to the public by the NHS. Anyone who is sexually active is being encouraged to take a test.
You can order a home test here.
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