The Department of Health says there is “anecdotal evidence from drug and alcohol clinics in London that recreational or club drug use amongst gay men” could be linked to rising HIV infection rates – and it has warned “high rates of transmission are ongoing.”

Earlier this month the National AIDS Trust (NAT) warned gay men are increasingly using newer substances, such as crystal meth, mephedrone and GHB/GBL, whilst often sharing needles in the context of risky sexual behaviour.

At one drug treatment centre in London, 85% of gay men now report using one or more of these three drugs compared to only 3% in 2005.

New research published today in The Lancet shows there has been a sharp rise in the number of gay and bisexual men testing positive for HIV.

In January, 1,296 new HIV infections were thought to have occurred in London amongst men who have sex with men (MSM) during 2011; but more recent data from Public Health England (PHE), reflecting the latest information submitted by sexual health services, have updated this 2011 figure to 1,420 new infections. The latest figure for 2012 is 1,720 new HIV infections, an increase of 21% on the 2011 number.

However, based on how data has been updated over time in previous years, the final 2012 figure could easily rise to 1,900 or more. Some of the rise can be attributed to increased HIV testing, with 43,404 tests carried out in the MSM group last year.

Valerie Delpech, head of HIV surveillance at Public Health England, said: “The latest data show that the year on year increase in new HIV diagnoses amongst gay men continued in 2012, with a concerning rise seen in London. The good news is that increased HIV testing in recent years accounts for some of this rise, however the scale of the increase seen shows us that high rates of transmission are ongoing.”

She added: “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. 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.”