The decision of The Times, Metro and The Huffington Post to claim gay men use a scorpion and other “biohazard” symbols to indicate they are HIV positive has surprised gay men’s health charity, GMFA.

Several UK publications reported the claims in reference to broadcaster David Dimbleby’s revelation that he recently had a scorpion tattoo etched on his shoulder.

The basis of the claims appears to come from one source – a CNN article published in August 2011 titled “Tattoos: A journey of HIV acceptance.”

Political site Guido Fawkes was among the first to link to the CNN article with the footnote: “According to CNN, a scorpion tattoo is a ‘biohazard symbol’ in the gay community for having HIV. Apparently the stinging tale [sic] of the scorpion represents the virus. Well that’s awkward.”

The Huffington Post and Metro both used quotes from William Conley, an HIV positive gay man in California with a biohazard symbol.

He told CNN in 2011 that he knew of 45 to 60 HIV positive men who have tattoos involving a biohazard symbol or a scorpion.

The Telegraph quotes David Dempsey, clinical director at the Alexian Brothers Bonaventure House in Chicago, who said to CNN in 2011: “It’s to let other men know that they’re HIV positive so that they don’t have to come out and say it.”

But some have questioned just how common the trend actually is. The UK articles fail to mention influential American HIV campaigner Larry Kramer, who CNN cite as being unaware of the practice.

GMFA, the British gay men’s health charity, says the reality of HIV is that most people find it difficult to inform others of their status because of the widespread stigma associated with the virus, and that the majority wouldn’t use a tattoo for the purpose.

Matthew Hodson, chief executive of GMFA, told PinkNews.co.uk: “I’d not heard before that a scorpion tattoo was intended to indicate that you’re HIV positive, and I’m sure there are plenty of Scorpios out there that will be surprised too. Talking about HIV status is hard, especially when huge numbers of gay men say that they wouldn’t have sex with anyone who was HIV+.

“The problem with any coded reference to HIV status is that it may not be universally understood, so even if you have a great big bio-hazard tattoo across your butt-cheeks, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone you have sex with is going to understand what it means.

“Most people with HIV don’t tell all of their sexual partners. If you’ve had a bad reaction in the past it makes it harder to say the next time. And although some gay men choose to ink their status, fierce and unapologetic, on their skin, the majority of us don’t.”