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1 in 3 HIV+ gay men have unprotected sex

May 1st, 2007

Dr Petra

Research to be published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections suggests that more than one in 3 HIV positive gay men are having unprotected sex, whilst one in five men who are not HIV positive also have sex without condoms.

The research involved a survey of 2640 men at 90 gay venues (including clubs, bars and saunas) in London, Manchester and Brighton from 2003-2004. Respondents were asked to comment on their lifestyles, history and sexual activity. 2311 men also gave saliva samples to test for the prevalence of HIV.

HIV prevalence was highest in Brighton (14% of those sampled) and lowest in Manchester (8.6%). Rates of undiagnosed infection was high in all three cities and across the whole sample one in three men were positive but did not know they were infected. Over two thirds of men studied claimed they had been to a sexual health clinic in the previous year.

The researchers have concluded from this study that treatment for HIV is available – as is a national policy encouraging HIV testing – a significant proportion of infection is not being diagnosed. The research team have called for more efforts to be made to increase opportunities for testing and treatment and to reduce the risk factors that can lead to HIV transmission.

There seems to have been some confusion from people I’ve heard from about this study – questioning why the researchers picked such obvious cities to study (with a high and obvious gay population). Basically for any health survey you need easy access to a participant group, and these three cities did allow researchers to talk to men about their sexual practices – as well as test for HIV. We can extrapolate from this data to men who are not living in places with a more open gay community, or who perhaps are not out about their sexuality.

The UK does have better testing/treatment options for HIV than many other countries (particularly the developing world). However, there does seem to be an ongoing problem with people taking risks with their sexual health.

Some research suggests that gay men who are positive assume if they only sleep with other positive men then they will be okay, but this can still put men at risk from other sexually transmitted infections that can be harmful to a compromised immune system. There’s also evidence from qualitative research that many younger gay men assume HIV is something that happens to other people and somehow they’ll escape it. For those men who are not out as gay, who are still hiding their sexuality or uncertain about it there are issues of accessing advice services that might be able to offer information. Teen gay lads may also not be getting the sex advice they need. There’s also the case that with treatments available for HIV it is no longer such a terrifying disease as it appeared to be in the 80s.

The media for the most part is reporting this story fairly faithfully – but there could be an anti-gay backlash from some quarters as the story spreads. It is worth remembering that whilst gay men may well be putting themselves at risk from HIV, straight men that are also not practising safer sex in great numbers are also catching and transmitting other sexually transmitted infections.

The message is that we all need to wake up about our sexual health, start managing it more effectively, and encourage our friends to do the same – regardless of our sexuality.

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