Europe’s biggest sexual health clinic, 56 Dean Street, in Soho, said that of those who tested positive in the first half of this year, 40 per cent had recently been infected — up from 37 per cent in 2020.
It hopes publicity around World Aids Day on Wednesday encourages people at risk of HIV, whose sex lives are “returning to normal” after the pandemic, to take the free “wonder drug” PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) to keep themselves safe.
Dr Alan McOwan, service director at 56 Dean Street, said: “We’re seeing a pattern of young gay men moving to London who then catch HIV in the first few months. By the time we see them, it’s too late. That’s why ‘PrEP Awareness Week’ is so important.
“We need to get the message to everyone that PrEP is a safe and effective way to protect yourself from HIV.”
The number of HIV diagnoses at 56 Dean Street fell by a quarter after the introduction of Covid restrictions in March last year. But this was not mirrored in a reduction in cases in the youngest age group — 21 and under. About one in three in this age group who tested positive had caught HIV in the preceding six months, despite PrEP being freely available from NHS sexual health clinics in England.
There is no age restriction on accessing PrEP, a tablet containing two antiretroviral drugs, but younger men are thought to be less aware of how to access it. PrEP is taken as a daily pill and offers about 99 per cent protection against HIV.
Figures on Wednesday revealed a total of 955 Londoners tested positive for HIV last year, down on 1,616 in 2019 and the fifth successive annual decrease in cases.
Doctors feared that a big drop in newly acquired infections, from 60 per cent of those testing positive in 2019, to 37 per cent in 2020, was due to changing patterns of testing due to the pandemic rather than a “real life” reduction.
This week the Royal Pharmaceutical Society called on the Government to widen access to PrEP by making it available through pharmacies.
RPS president Professor Claire Anderson said: “Community pharmacies are highly trusted and conveniently located, providing a much wider reach than specialist services on their own.”
A candlelit vigil will be held on Wednesday evening on Carnaby Street to honour those who have died from Aids.