Drugs and sex parties blamed for HIV rates of London’s gay men
A high-risk sex party and drug taking subculture within London’s gay community is contributing to the steep rise in HIV infections, according to medical journal The Lancet.
A hedonistic lifestyle of party drugs and unprotected sex in the capital has caused HIV rates to soar between 2011 and 2012, according to the latest statistics from Public Health England (PHE).
Crucially, in the UK overall there were 3240 new infections diagnosed in men who have sex with men (MSM) in 2012, compared to 3010 new infections in 2011. In London, the increase has been sharper, with 1720 new infections diagnosed in 2012 compared to 1420 in 2011 – an increase of 21 per cent.
Although part of the figures can be more positively attributed to an increase in awareness of HIV testing, The Lancet have raised concerns over the use of drink and drugs – especially injectable drugs such as crystal meth - combined with unprotected sex, amongst gay men.
Valerie Delpech, head of HIV surveillance at PHE, compounded these fears. “There is anecdotal evidence from drug and alcohol clinics in London that recreational or club drug use amongst gay men is a growing issue, which warrants further investigation”, she said. “PHE, in collaboration with London clinics, is initiating enhanced behavioural surveillance amongst gay men likely to have acquired their infection in the 6 months before diagnosis, to explore this issue”.
Some of the dangerous practices identified by The Lancet include men seeking out parties via the internet where individuals can engage in ‘bareback’ sex (sex without a condom), and HIV-negative men borrowing medication from HIV-positive friends in the false hope that the medication will prevent them from getting infected.
David Stuart from regional LGBT charity London Friend explained why he believes men in the capital are engaging in such risky practices: “Some gay men are preferring to have sex without condoms for a variety of complicated reasons associated with a changing HIV health situation and using drugs to manage a complex relationship to sex, intimacy, and gay identity”, he said. “Mix this with an alarming increase in injecting use and a reluctance to access traditional drug services, and the potential for a costly and culturally harmful epidemic of HIV and drug use is enormous”.
Emma Devitt, a consultant in infectious diseases and expert in HIV co-infection working in the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and the 56 Dean Street Clinic is not optimistic about the chances of convincing people to stop engaging in dangerous practices. “We’re never going to change people's behaviour”, she said. “Sex parties are not going to stop. Closing the saunas in San Francisco in the 1980s did not prevent group sex occurring or change the HIV epidemic there. Treating everyone with HIV with antiretroviral drugs could be the best way to prevent onward transmission including in these high-risk environments. But where will we get the resources to deliver that?”
Indeed, according to recent figures, the cost of treating each patient with NHS antiretroviral medication is £11,400 per year.