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Government is Failing on HIV

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The HIV crisis isn't over yet. In 2010, the number of people living with HIV in the UK reached an estimated 91,500, according the Health Protection Agency (HPA), with around a quarter of these people (22,000-plus) being unaware that they are infected.

In the same year, which is the last year for which we have full figures, there were 6,660 new HIV diagnoses. Over half of these were diagnosed late, after the infected persons should have begun treatment. Delays in diagnosis and treatment are associated with an increased risk of serious illness, even death. Of the 680 people who died from AIDS in 2010, two-thirds were diagnosed late.

The HPA says that HIV infections acquired within the UK almost have doubled in the last decade from 1,950 in 2001 to 3,640 in 2010. They now exceed those acquired abroad - 3,020.

Most new infections were transmitted through heterosexual sex; although gay and bisexual men still account for the largest single social group living with HIV in the UK and the rates of HIV are still highest in the gay community.

These statistics make depressing reading. They show that the government's HIV strategy is flawed and failing. Ministers have dropped the ball on HIV. They are too complacent.

Despite the thousands of new HIV cases every year, there are no major public HIV awareness and prevention campaigns. Where are the safer sex TV and billboard adverts? Each new generation needs educating about risky behaviour, and older generations need reminding and encouraging, so they sustain safer sex.

Some HIV services and treatments are under threat of cuts. Already, the closure or merger of some local and regional HIV services means that many people with HIV now have to travel longer distances to access good quality care and support. The time and cost involved can act as a disincentive to engagement with HIV services.

London HIV clinics are under pressure to prescribe cheaper HIV drugs, which may not be as effective and may have more severe side effects. This could put at risk the health of some people with HIV. It is evidence of the potentially damaging consequences of public spending cuts and pressure on NHS finances.

HIV education is woefully inadequate in most schools. Teaching pupils how to roll a condom on a banana is not good enough. Very few students learn what to do if a partner refuses to wear a condom ie. how to negotiate safer sex. There is no popularisation of less risky alternatives to intercourse, such as body rubbing, oral sex and mutual masturbation. These alternatives should be explained, and probably encouraged, in all secondary schools.

In addition, the safer sex information taught in schools is wholly oriented to heterosexual sex. Gay and bisexual students, and the many straight kids who experiment with homosexuality, get no specific advice on how to have gay sex safely.

Many faith schools and independent schools are neglecting their pupil's HIV education. They put their own dogmas and embarrassment about sexual matters before the health and welfare of young people. They get away with this neglect because the government too often allows them to avoid their responsibilities.

Age-appropriate frank and detailed HIV awareness and prevention education should be mandatory in all schools from primary level onwards, before pupils become sexually active and adopt unsafe sexual habits. If safer sex is imbibed at an early age, it will often stay with a person for life.

The needs of gay and bisexual men continue to be under-resourced, with funding being cut to agencies, such as Gay Men Fighting AIDS, that specialise in safer sex education for men who have sex with men.

Moreover, the limited gay-focussed HIV prevention campaigns that continue to be funded don't seem to be working, as evidenced by the number of new HIV infections. Over 3,000 gay and bisexual men were diagnosed with HIV in 2010. One in 20 gay men nationwide have HIV, and one in 11 in London have the virus. Among men who regularly go to gay bars, clubs and saunas, the rate of infection is estimated to be one in eight.

Having won so many gains in terms of legal rights and social acceptance, I want my gay and bisexual brothers to remain safe and healthy, so they can fully enjoy the benefits of equality.

To this end, the government and HIV charities should rethink safer sex advertising campaigns. Some of them need to be more hard-hitting and impactive. We've got to cut the level of new infections in the gay community. A bit of 'shock and awe' may be more effective, at least for some people. Forcing them to witness the long-term reality of HIV might be a wake-up call. It could help undermine the mentality that HIV can be solved by popping a daily pill.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, although HIV is increasingly a manageable condition like diabetes, some people with the virus are still dying and others are prone to more secondary illnesses, discomforting side effects and a shorter life expectancy.

We can't carry on with the current rate of new gay and straight HIV infections. It's straining the NHS at a time of cutbacks and, more importantly, turning too many people's lives upside down.

It's time the government woke up to the fact that the HIV pandemic is still with us, and put in place new go-getting policies to improve safer sex education, reduce infection rates and upgrade HIV support services.

Access to effective HIV prevention information and to high quality HIV health-care are human rights.

For more information about Peter Tatchell's human rights campaigns and to support his work: www.petertatchellfoundation.org

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