The New Zealand Aids Foundation has revealed that more gay men are having unprotected sex than ever before in the country.

Last year there were 89 new HIV diagnoses among gay men, the highest number since the epidemic began and a 19% increase on the previous highest figure in 2004. It means that in 2005 there was one new infection every four days.

The figures are “deeply disturbing” says NZAF Board Chair Hoani Jeremy Lambert, “and present a challenge to the Foundation to ensure it keeps its focus sharply on HIV prevention for men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM.)

“However,” he said, “if we are to succeed in turning these figures around we need the support of the leaders, business operators, community organisations and individuals in the gay community. In the early days of the HIV epidemic it was grassroots support for the safe sex message that produced the dramatic successes in reducing HIV incidence among New Zealand MSM. If we are not now to see that good work undone, we need to re-energise that community support.”

NZAF Executive Director Rachael Le Mesurier said it was very worrying that the 2005 statistics pointed to an increase of unprotected anal intercourse (UAI) among MSM in spite of an abundance of knowledge in this community about HIV and the consequences of unsafe sex.

“There is no other explanation for this increase,” she said, “other than the fact that more HIV positive men, whether they know their status or not, are choosing to have unprotected anal intercourse and more HIV negative men are choosing to have unsafe sex with men whose HIV status they don’t know.”

Ms Le Mesurier said that further analysis was needed but it was highly likely that major factors influencing the increase would include, the success of HIV treatments causing people to be less worried about avoiding HIV; the growth of internet dating, which is hugely increasing the opportunities men have for sex; the integration of the gay community into the “mainstream” making it harder to target HIV prevention messages designed for MSM; and the eroticisation of unsafe sex.”

“These present real challenges to the Foundation,” she said. “For instance, the diversification and integration of MSM communities mean we are under pressure to develop a wider range of very narrowly targeted resources which is hugely demanding of staff time, resources and finances.”

Ms Le Mesurier said the most effective thing the gay men can do to help turn the HIV statistics around is to end what seems to be a growing community tolerance of unprotected anal intercourse.

“To quote something I saw on a gay message board the other day, ‘People need to stop seeing HIV infection as simply problematic. It is a life-threatening attack on happiness, health and lifestyle’. It will cause you to have to make major compromises in how you live your life; and it is still highly likely, to make you very sick and kill you.”

“No condom, no sex” is a powerful message to give to prospective sex partners,” she said. “If everyone were to use it, it wouldn’t take long for those who sometimes don’t use condoms to get the message that people who demand unprotected sex, will always get less sex.”