An HIV diagnosis in Britain is no longer a death sentence—thanks to costly new drugs. But as the spectre of death fades, so do the most visible reasons to avoid risky behaviour. Now the Aids prevention industry has a whole new set of problemsby Elizabeth Pisani / June 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
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I’m in a bar in Soho. A message flashes up on the plasma screen on the wall behind me: “Tom, I want to nibble your biltong.” A guy leaning against the banisters makes a show of putting his mobile phone away while making eye contact with a cute blond boy at the bar. Cute blond blushes. Soon, they’re smooching in a corner. How Tom’s biltong fared that night I don’t know, but I can guess.
This is London’s gay scene in a world without Aids. Since treatment for HIV became available in the mid-1990s, Aids has all but evaporated in rich countries. Annual deaths among gay men in Britain have crashed from a peak of over 1,162 in 1994 to just 153 in 2007. “Aids? I’ve never met anyone with Aids,” says Tim, an engineering undergraduate who’s sitting under the plasma screen, nursing a nasty pre-mixed drink. When I ask how many of the guys around us might be infected with HIV, he looks shocked. “That’s not a nice thing to talk about. I don’t know, 4 or 5 per cent?” Actually, the government estimates that around 9 per cent of gay men in London are HIV-infected, against 5 per cent elsewhere. But we’re not looking at all gay men in London. We’re looking at guys in a pick-up bar at 1am on Friday night; I’m probably the only person here who will leave without being propositioned. Many of the men eyeing each other up are in their 30s; they’ve had plenty of time to get infected. My guess is that 25 per cent of the men in this room have HIV, possibly a lot more. In 2006, 2,640 gay men were diagnosed with HIV—making up nearly two thirds of the total diagnoses of HIV infections that were acquired in Britain.
You don’t have to be an epidemiologist to work out that if 2,640 people are diagnosed with an incurable disease and only 153 die, the number of people known to be living with the disease will rise. The number of gay men living with HIV in Britain is probably around 31,000.
But these days you never see a cadaverous looking 35 year old in an armchair surrounded by friends trying not to notice that his face is covered by the black splotches of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer…