First Published: December 2003
       This is an OutUK Archive Item and so some of the links and information may be out of date.

I was recently talking to a friend who I hadn’t spoken to in several months, writes OutUK correspondent Josh Aterovis. We both lead busy lives and, even though we live relatively close to one another, we don’t see each other often. As we were catching up, he says, “Well, I guess you’ve heard.” I hadn’t. That’s when he broke the news. He’d recently been diagnosed with HIV. I felt as if someone had hit me in the head with a hammer. Someone I knew, someone who had been in my house and sat at my table, had been diagnosed with this horrible disease. He was young, smart, and beautiful. It just didn’t seem possible. If I felt like that, how must he feel?
He went on to tell me how he thought he’d done everything right. He always used protection and he went for testing regularly. He was shattered when he learned the news from his doctor. “Now, I’m just a statistic,” he said to me.

While to me, he is still my friend and more than just a statistic, to many that is exactly what he is. Unfortunately, he is part of a disturbing and growing trend in the statistics: rising numbers of young gay men contracting the HIV virus.

This year's World Aids Day campaign poster from the National AIDS Trust.
When HIV/AIDS first broke into the national consciousness in the 1980’s, it hit the gay community especially hard. We lost many of our best and brightest. The virus almost destroyed an entire generation of gay men in the US. In the decades since, we’ve learned much about this deadly disease. Treatments have improved, allowing infected men and women to live long, productive lives. That doesn’t mean it is no longer a threat. There is still no cure for HIV/AIDS and the treatments -- complex, costly and difficult -- do not work for everyone. While the number of reported AIDS cases is declining, the number of people living with HIV infection is growing. In the UK, the number of people living with HIV by 2005 will be 47% higher than in 2000.

What's just as alarming is that the rate of infection amongst gay men remains steady. 34% of men infected by HIV before the end of 2002 were infected through sex with other men. Although the number of infections in this group has remained much the same in recent years, it has not declined. In the UK so far this year, 58% of HIV infections have occurred as a result of heterosexual sex outside this country, mostly in Africa, where it's believed close to 50% of the population are HIV positive.

What concerns many researchers though is the resurgence of other sexually transmitted infections among gay men and young people, pointing to a revival of high-risk sexual behaviours. Many researchers are blaming the rise among young gay men on “AIDS complacency.” This generation has grown up hearing about HIV and AIDS, but seeing celebrities live lives seemingly unaffected by the virus. Unlike the generation that watched so many of their friends and lovers die horrible deaths, AIDS is more abstract to these younger people. They have less fear of the disease. The sudden resurgence of dangerous activities like bare-backing (having sex without a condom) can only contribute to these numbers.

We need to keep reminding young people that condoms continue to be the most effective prevention tool against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Are condoms 100% effective? No. However, studies have shown that if a latex condom is used correctly every time you have sex, this is highly effective in providing protection against HIV. The evidence for this is clearest in studies of couples in which one person is infected with HIV and the other not (discordant couples). In a study of discordant couples in Europe, among 123 couples who reported consistent condom use, none of the uninfected partners became infected. In contrast, among the 122 couples who used condoms inconsistently, 12 of the uninfected partners became infected.

In the laboratory, latex condoms are very effective at blocking transmission of HIV because the pores in latex condoms are too small to allow the virus to pass through. However, outside of the laboratory, condoms are less effective because people do not always use them properly. Knowing how to properly use a condom could save your life, so be sure to educate yourself.

Regular testing is also an important step in prevention. In the event that you do become infected, the sooner you know, the sooner you can begin treatment and the sooner you can avoid spreading the infection to others.

As with so many things, education is the key, and learning all you can about HIV/AIDS will help you avoid hearing the same news my friend received. After a few months of counselling and treatment, he’s doing well both physically and emotionally, but this is something he will live with for the rest of his life. Despite advances in treatment, AIDS is still a fatal disease. Be concerned, be educated, be safe. Don’t become a statistic.

There are a host of websites if you'd like advice on HIV or AIDS. Check them out in our
OutUK OutReach Directory.


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