HIV and party drugs

A recent article in The Lancet by T. Kirby and M. Thornber-Dunwell, pointed to a 21% raise in HIV rates in London between 2011-2012, and suggested it might be even higher by the end of the year. The article also details anecdotal evidence from London drug and alcohol clinics that suggests a link between recreational drug use amongst gay men,risky sexual behaviour and this rise in HIV.

While taking all potential risk extremely seriously, any good scientist knows health advice and treatment can not ever be based just on anecdote. It has to be backed up with evidence,not least knowing exactly what your statistics are telling you.

Delpech, Head of HIV surveillance in Public Health England (PHE), did state that this is a “concerning rise” but qualified the analysis of the statistic, by clarifying that “the good news is that increased HIV testing in recent years accounts for some of this rise..”

This is especially desirable as it's estimated that about a third of people with HIV are unaware that they have the infection. Those with HIV need early detection as early treatment has great benefits, and obviously knowing you have the infection means you can do something about preventing spreading it. The statistic quoted of a 21% rise in diagnosis doesn't make clear what part of this percentage comes from this increased testing. So we don't yet know what HIV was already out there, and if this is just us mainly finding out a truer rate of infection.

No one, of course, should be complacent about such a life changing diagnosis, and if risky behaviour is adding to infection rates, it's something that needs serious study. Indeed V Delpech states that “PHE, in collaboration with London clinics, is initiating enhanced surveillance amongst gay men likely to have acquired their infection in the 6 months before diagnosis, to explore this issue.” So this is a concern that those working with HIV are already taking seriously.

As with any group, there are many different individuals and cultures in the gay community, just as it is in the heterosexual one. There may well be sub cultures in the gay community that are all about high risk behaviours (as there are elsewhere) and HIV rates may well spike in all such groups. It's important to know what is actually happening, so you can offer the best advice and protection.

We must always remember these percentages all represent real people, who have just been diagnosed with HIV, a life changing and serious moment. They, and everyone around them have to adjust to this diagnosis and live with it, and all its implications. Anything that can prevent the spread, whether in the gay or heterosexual community is to be desired, obviously. Knowledge is one of the primary tools in that. Where sex is concerned, logic is not always its closest bed fellow but in bringing sexual health to all communities, it's also important not to spread panic, because close on its heels often comes prejudice. And no one wants the rates of that to rise either.

Words by Mairi Harris