UK-acquired HIV doubles in 10 years

HPA: Black Africans and men who have sex with men most at risk

New diagnoses for people infected with HIV in the UK almost doubled over the past decade, (from 1,950 in 2001 to 3,780 in 2010) new figures released by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) show.

If these 3,780 UK-acquired HIV cases in 2010 had been prevented, over £32 million annually or £1.2 billion over a lifetime in costs would have been saved.

Men who have sex with men remain the group most at risk of becoming infected with HIV in the UK and new diagnoses in this group alone have increased by 70 per cent in the past 10 years rising from 1,810 in 2001 to 3,080 in 2010.

Late diagnosis continues to severely affect the health outcomes of people with HIV. On average, of all those who die from HIV infection every year, three out of five are diagnosed late – that is after the point their treatment should have begun.

New guidance released by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence recommends increased testing of HIV in key risk groups. In the UK black Africans and men who have sex with men are most at risk of becoming infected with HIV. Increased testing will encourage early diagnosis in these groups.

Dr. Valerie Delpech, head of HIV surveillance at the HPA said: “An HIV test should be routinely offered and recommended to all general medical admissions to hospital in high prevalence areas (people with diagnosed HIV infection greater than 2 per 1,000 aged 15-59 years). Similarly, testing new registrants in primary care should be implemented in high prevalence areas although the cost implications may be greater in this setting where there may be a greater reliance on point of care tests. These expanded HIV testing policies should be prioritised for implementation as soon as possible.”

Stressing that “HIV is an extremely serious infection,” Dr. Delpech observed that “There are excellent treatment options available nowadays but these are only at their most effective if the infection is diagnosed early, before symptoms appear. This is a challenge as most individuals will not be aware of their infection until they get tested for HIV. Testing for the infection must be increased in order to catch the infection as early as possible.”

Dr. Delpech said that the impact of late diagnosis is demonstrated by looking at deaths among people with HIV. “Three out of five of HIV positive individuals that die are diagnosed too late to gain the most health benefits from their treatment, like increased life expectancy. The prevention of HIV infection is a public health and financial priority in the UK. Continuing high numbers of new HIV diagnoses in the UK is a major public health concern.”

Dr. Delpech called for increased efforts in reinforcing the safer sex message saying that “using a condom with all new or casual sexual partners is the surest way to prevent serious sexually transmitted infections such as HIV. Treatment alone will not stop this epidemic – prevention is crucial to tackling this preventable infection and reducing the number of cases.”

Dr. Paul Cosford, executive director of Health Protection Services at the HPA said: “Unfortunately despite small decreases in cases in the last few years new diagnoses of HIV infections acquired within the UK are on the upward turn, especially in men who have sex with men. This is the result of both new cases coming forward to be diagnosed as well as high levels of on-going transmission, especially among men.

“We are continuing to work hard alongside clinicians, public health specialists and communities to ensure that HIV prevention remains at the top of the public health agenda. This will help to strengthen measures to prevent the transmission of HIV and enable the introduction of innovative initiatives to reduce HIV infection.”