Sexual health charities that work with the gay community have said that a recent study that claims HIV is spreading among clusters of gay men is “nothing new.”
Gay men’s health group GMFA and Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) both said that infections among specific groups of gay men have been an acknowledged factor in the epidemiology of the disease for decades.
Tim Molloy from GMFA told PinkNews.co.uk:
“We have always been aware of sexual networks. Men go to the same bar and are into the same things so it is obvious that there will be a pattern, we have known this since HIV began.”
Professor Andrew Leigh Brown of the University of Edinburgh studied more than 2,000 people who had become infected with the virus between 1997 and 2003.
“The aim of this study was to analyse a high-density sample of an HIV-infected population to infer the short-term dynamics of the epidemic among men who have sex with men,” his report stated.
“The research found that overall 25% of individuals are linked to 10 or more others.
“65% of the transmissions within clusters took place between 1995 and 2000, and 25% occurred within 6 months after infection.
“The likelihood that not all members of the clusters have been identified renders the latter observation conservative.”
This research seems to confirm similar studies that indicate two thirds of HIV infections are caught from someone who has recently been infected by the virus.
“This research is nothing new, ” Will Nutland from THT told PinkNews.co.uk.
“All the patterns and research have shown that HIV occurs amongst groups of men, that is no surprise at all.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that groups of men who have all previously tested negative may have unprotected sex with each other, feeling that the activity is safe.
If one of those men becomes infected outside of the group then they will be highly infectious and are likely to infect that sexual network.
When one of them then tests positive the whole group becomes aware of their exposure.
Once the infection has been found the men are likely stop unsafe sexual activity and this stops the infection cluster from expanding.
This is thought to be an explanation as to why the clusters tend to be between groups of 10 to 20 men.
“Men who are recently infected are very infectious and are not aware of their status,” continued Mr Nutland.
“Once they know their status they will change their behaviour.”
THT is in the process of re-thinking their sexual health strategies.
“We need to get gay men to understand the signs of infection,” explained Mr Nutland.
“If you experience flu-like symptoms, a sore throat and a rash and you are having unprotected sex then you should get tested.
“We need to still focus on the bread and butter of sexual health, such as condoms and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), but I think we are going to see a lot more campaigns focusing the symptoms of being recently infected.”
Ten years ago the NHS in Camden and Islington began a controversial campaign calling for gay men to look for cold-like symptoms.
The campaign was criticised as it was approaching a cold winter and it was thought that the large amount of people who would catch the common cold would be unnecessarily distressed.
In November the Health Protection Agency revealed that the number of gay and bisexual men diagnosed with HIV in the UK is at its highest rate since the start of the epidemic.
2,700 gay and bisexual men were newly diagnosed in 2006, the highest number ever.
Across the UK 1 in 20 gay and bisexual men are now living with HIV and estimates suggest this figure is as high as 1 in 10 in London. One in three people do not know they are infected.
Terrence Higgins trust is launching a new website to raise awareness of the link between drug and alcohol abuse and the spread of STIs including HIV.