BRITAIN is “on course” to be HIV-free nation by 2030 – as rates fall to lowest level in almost two decades.
New diagnoses fell by just over a quarter from 6,721 in 2015 to 4,484 last year, Public Health England said.
Health bosses say the continued decline in the virus is down to the success of preventative measures.
But they warn that challenges remain, with figures showing that almost half of people newly diagnosed last year were at a late stage of infection – increasing their risk of death.
The biggest falls in new diagnoses have been among gay and bisexual men, particularly those who are white, born in the UK, aged between 15 and 24 and living in London, the figures show.
During the same period, between 2015 and 2018, new diagnoses fell by 24 per cent among people who got HIV through heterosexual contact.
Late diagnosis risk
Last year, 43 per cent of people were diagnosed at a late stage of infection.
Late diagnoses increases the risk of death within a year up to ten-fold compared to people diagnosed promptly, PHE said.
Better measures including HIV testing, condom provision, more use of the pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drug – taken by HIV-negative people before sex, and drugs that keep the level of HIV in the body low and prevent the virus being passed on, known as anti-retroviral therapy (ART) are said to have been behind the decline.
Early diagnosis means early effective treatment, which can prevent you passing on HIV
Dr Valerie Delpech
Dr Valerie Delpech, head of HIV surveillance at PHE, said: “Getting tested for HIV has never been easier, with free tests available through GP surgeries, local hospitals and sexual health clinics, as well as through a self-sampling service or by using a self-testing kit.
“Early diagnosis means early effective treatment, which can prevent you passing on HIV.”
Public Health Minister Jo Churchill welcomed the overall drop in new diagnoses, but vowed not to be complacent as the Government works towards a target of having no new HIV transmissions by 2030.
She said: “I am delighted to see new figures released today which show we are well on our way to achieving our ambition of zero HIV transmissions in England by 2030, with HIV diagnoses at their lowest level since 2000.
What are the symptoms of HIV?
Most infected people experience a short illness, similar to flu, two to six weeks after coming into contact with HIV.
These symptoms, which 80 per cent of infected people experience, are a sign that their body is trying to fight HIV. They include:
- Sore throat
- Body rash
- Joint and/or muscle pain
- Swollen glands
After this illness, which normally lasts one to two weeks, HIV sufferers will have no symptoms for up to 10 years – during which time they will look and feel well.
However, the virus will continue to cause progressive damage to a person’s immune system.
Only once the immune system is already severely damaged will the person show new symptoms. These include:
- Weight loss
- Chronic diarrhoea
- Night sweats
- Skin problems
- Recurrent infections
- Serious, life-threatening illnesses
“This decline in diagnoses is a result of our unwavering commitment to prevention which has led to more people getting tested, and has allowed people with HIV to benefit from effective treatment, stopping the virus from spreading further.
“However, I am not complacent and remain dedicated to ensuring we reach our target of zero new HIV transmissions by 2030.”
The Terrence Higgins Trust has called for wider access to the three-year PrEP trial, which had recruited just over 13,000 participants by June this year and is scheduled to end next year.
Ian Green, chief executive at the trust, said: “In light of today’s data from Public Health England, we’re urging NHS England, the Department of Health and local councils to immediately begin planning for PrEP to be given a home as part of routine sexual health services.
“Raising awareness of PrEP outside of the gay community will also go a long way in helping us to reach zero transmissions by 2030.”
The drug is almost 100% effective at preventing HIV when taken as prescribed.
It involves a pill containing a combination of two anti-HIV drugs, emtricitabine and tenofovir, taken daily or around the time of sexual activity.
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