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Dramatic drop in HIV infections among gay men in the UK

New figures released today show a dramatic decrease in HIV infection in the UK.

According to government organization Public Health England, there’s been a 71.4% fall in the infection rate in gay and bisexual men between 2012 and 2018: down from 2,800 in 2014 to 800 in 2018.

The number of gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men living undiagnosed with HIV has also halved since 2014 from an estimated 7,000 to 3,600 in 2018.

The UK government has pledged to end HIV transmission in the country by 2030.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock welcomed the latest figures. “I feel very strongly that we must end HIV transmission,” he said, reports the BBC.

“HIV has brought untold hurt and suffering to so many, so it is encouraging to see transmissions continue to fall across the UK.”

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The UK’s largest sexual health charity, Terrence Higgins Trust, gave the figures a more cautious welcome.

Debbie Laycock, Head of Policy, noted the fall in infection among gay/bi men, but said, “We are not seeing that same level of progress among other groups. For example, we’re seeing slight increases among black African people and south Asian gay and bisexual men.

“No one can be left behind when it comes to ending HIV and progress across all communities is essential if we are to avoid going backwards,” she added. “This means looking beyond the groups traditionally associated with HIV and increasing testing in all communities.”

The fall in transmission has been attributed to several factors. Firstly, encouraging people to test for HIV and to continue testing regularly.

Secondly, to place all those diagnosed with HIV on treatment immediately and to bring their viral load down to undetectable levels. This ensures they cannot pass the virus on to anyone else.

Thirdly, there has been an increase in the number of people taking PrEP. However, PrEP is still not available to all who want it via the UK’s National Health Service. Around 16,000 high-risk individuals are enrolled in a three-year trial to establish the cost-efficiency of the drugs.

The trial is due to end later this year, and campaigners are calling for the government to move fast to ensure PrEP is made available to all you want it.

An estimated 103,800 people were living with HIV in the UK in 2018, and of those, it’s 93% had been diagnosed with the virus and were aware of their status.

Of those diagnosed, 97% were receiving treatment, and of those, 97% were undetectable.

By contrast, in the US, the CDC estimates 86% of people living with the virus have been diagnosed and 63% are virally suppressed.

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Laycock highlighted the fact there remain an estimated 7,500 HIV positive people in the UK who are undiagnosed, and that 43% of those diagnosed were only tested when they’d developed symptoms or been living with the virus for a lengthy period. She said more must be done to raise awareness around HIV testing and battle stigma around the virus.

“We know that stigma continues to be a huge barrier in preventing people coming forward to getting tested. That’s why updating the public’s knowledge about HIV is crucial.”

Mathew Hodson, Chief Executive of NAM, echoed Laycock’s cautions, but told Queerty, “Overall though this data contains much to celebrate. The UK is a world leader in getting people with HIV to undetectable levels. If we don’t make it to zero new cases by 2030 we are on target to get very close.”