In an exclusive interview with PinkNews, Public Health Minister Jane Ellison says she’s in favour of looking at new ways for gay and bisexual men to test for HIV, such as in gyms and bars, because she wants testing to become an “ordinary mainstream activity”.
The Conservative MP for Battersea became Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Public Health in October’s reshuffle, taking over from Tory MP Anna Soubry.
Speaking to PinkNews.co.uk for World AIDS Day, Ms Ellison said she was concerned by the high prevalence of HIV among gay and bisexual men.
3,250 gay and bisexual men were diagnosed with HIV in 2012, the highest annual figure since the start of the epidemic.
“I think it’s right to highlight the fact that perhaps a lot of younger gay men are not as aware as my generation were about some of the risks and about the need to be aware of HIV and seek early diagnosis”, Ms Ellison told PinkNews.co.uk. “One of the things we have done very recently is to write out to all GPs and medical directors to remind them about how important it is to offer a test when people go to their GP.”
“There is always work to do in this area because there are lots of things which people don’t offer as routine”, Ms Ellison said to PinkNews.co.uk. “We do make a lot of demands on our clinicians so it’s really important to get it front of mind, and that we also spread good practice when we see something working we let people know and that’s one of the ways we can get more people testing.”
Between 2011 and 2012, the number of gay and bisexual men taking an HIV test in NHS clinics increased by 13%. In London, this increase was even sharper, at 19%. It is estimated that around 100,000 gay and bisexual men tested for HIV in 2012.
However, around one in five gay and bisexual men with HIV remain unaware that they have the virus.
Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), Britain’s largest sexual health and HIV charity, has called for a doubling in the numbers of gay and bisexual men who take an annual HIV test.
Ms Ellison and THT agree this year’s decision by the Department of Health to legalise HIV self-testing kits could lead to a significant increase in testing, but the Minister has also been impressed by the results of community testing initiatives such as the annual World AIDS Day HIV testing event at London’s G-A-Y bar.
Last year’s event saw 745 tests carried out in the space of 8 hours, a Guinness World Record.
When asked if there was merit in looking at increasing testing in non-clinical settings, such as bars and gyms, Ms Ellison told PinkNews.co.uk: “I think all of those ideas are really worth looking at absolutely. I think the more you can make testing part of people’s ordinary mainstream activity the better.
“I was actually speaking to a Chamber of Commerce event in my own constituency last week and the head of our local HIV charity was there and was speaking and presenting. I was really delighted to see an HIV charity regarded as part of the mainstream business local community, they have shops and other outlets as well.”
Going back to the idea of increasing testing in non-clinical settings, the Minister added: “I think it is definitely worth looking at and I think one of the beauties of devolving a lot of the ring-fenced public health budget to local authorities is that we can actually set people free to use real innovation and imagination in how they go about tackling some of these big issues.”
With research showing widespread ignorance of HIV throughout society and that many remain unaware of the prevalence; Ms Ellison was asked if it was time for the government to radically overhaul sex education in schools. She replied: “It’s a bit difficult for me to comment as I am not the School’s Minister, I mean obviously these are things which would have been put to my colleagues in Education and they’ll be part of on-going discussions in government.
“I think obviously the more education and the more awareness we can raise the better, I can’t comment specifically on that particular idea, but I think it’s right to highlight the fact that perhaps a lot of younger gay men are not as aware as my generation were about some of the risks and about the need to be aware of HIV and seek early diagnosis.”