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Monday, September 12, 2005

This Blew My Mind

I was flicking through the weekend's papers earlier when, in the Guardian magazine for Saturday, I came across this:

In truth, more than 75% of the heterosexuals diagnosed with HIV in the UK last year were infected abroad or by partners who were infected abroad, with 68% of them having been exposed to HIV in Africa. Although black Africans living in Britain represent barely 1% of the population, last year they accounted for 42% of new HIV diagnoses. If you are black, African and living here, you are 50 times more likely to be HIV positive than any other ethnic group. A close look at the figures reveals another disheartening fact. Last year more than 84% of those diagnosed with HIV in the UK, who had been infected in the UK, were still gay or bisexual men. Although they constitute 1% of the UK population, gay men account for 43% of those with HIV.

A "gay epidemic" that everyone thought had been thwarted by the late 80s is back with a vengeance. What, then, of the so-called heterosexual epidemic that has led the government to commit millions to a health campaign? Incredibly, there are probably only 184 white, British, heterosexual men and women who have contracted HIV in the UK through having sex with someone from the same demographic group in the last 20 years. Professor Brian Gazzard, one of Britain's most senior HIV specialists and head of HIV research at Chelsea and Westminster hospital, London, says:

"The chances of a white woman and a white man getting together on a Saturday night and infecting each other with HIV is tiny." Our own calculations reveal that that risk is approximately one in 300,000. HIV in the UK is black and it is gay.

Dr Barry Evans, Britain's leading HIV epidemiologist at the government's Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre, tells us:

"The presentation of HIV figures has often been misleading. We have shied away from telling the explicit truth about those at greatest risk from the virus for fear of how it will be manipulated by racists and homophobes. I believe that this decision is wrong but I am not sure the government can handle or wants to handle a genuine debate about HIV in Britain."

I was amazed by this; especially by the idea that, over the last twenty years, less than 200 people like me (white heterosexuals) had contracted HIV in Britain from having sex with white heterosexuals of the opposite gender. Dude, that's astonishing.

As it goes, looking at these figures, if two fairly small groups of the population (black Africans and gay men) account for the lion's share of new HIV positive cases, the British government's launching of a massive new AIDS awareness campaign aimed at the population in general seems somewhat pointless. Well, maybe not pointless, but a misallocation of resources made, as Dr. Evans points out, of a misguided fear of the information playing into the hands of bigots. This is pretty silly, because bigots are going to find out the numbers anyway; this is, after all, the internet age. Just because we don't like the fact that something is true, and hope that people we don't like won't come across the information, does not mean it can be wished away.

In this particular instance, instead of throwing tens of millions of pounds at a phantom problem (a national heterosexual AIDS epidemic that doesn't exist) it would be much more sensible for the government to redouble efforts to target safe sex and treatment information specifically at gay men and members of the various African communities, especially women, and especially migrants from East and Southern Africa, the worst-affected regions of the continent. Raising general AIDS awareness is a worthy goal as well, of course, but it is not the most pressing part of the issue.

|| RPH || 10:36 PM || |