Health experts have reported a sudden surge in straight middle-aged men contracting HIV. Bill Gardner lifts the lid on a hidden epidemic sweeping Brighton and Hove.
When the grim spectre of Aids first reared its head in the 1980s, the killer virus was soon dubbed by some as the ‘gay plague’.
But thirty years later, for the first time ever, more than half of new cases in Brighton and Hove are being caught through heterosexual sex.
And rather than affecting only promiscuous young people, a sudden surge of sexually active over-50s are being declared HIV positive.
In the past few years, the number of new cases in the city has been steadily rising, with almost 2,000 people treated last year compared to 758 in 2001.
And this year, for the first time, 70% of new cases were caught through heterosexual sex with 30% involving over-50s, mainly men.
Now, health experts are urging both gay and straight people of all ages to visit free clinics across the city to be screened for HIV.
Caroline Lovett, head of clinical services at AIDS charity Sussex Beacon, said many heterosexual older men had no idea they were so at risk.
She said: “There’s still a perception that this is only a gay issue.
“If you have got a heterosexual man in his 50s then contracting HIV may not be on his radar. Most don’t even consider they might be in danger.”
Mrs Lovett said many of the older sufferers, which included many women, had often been through long marriages before starting new relationships in middle age.
For them, condoms were for contraception, not for protection against sexually transmitted diseases.
She said: “People that age are not thinking about contraception. That’s why many are now contracting HIV because they think it’s OK not to take precautions.”
Brighton and Hove has traditionally been a hotspot for AIDS due to its high gay population.
In 2009, a memorial was built in New Steine Gardens to remember the scores of sufferers who have died from the disease.
Andy, a straight man in his late 40s from Brighton, discovered he had HIV five years ago.
He said many heterosexual people had “no idea” about the dangers of having unprotected sex.
He said: “I was in complete denial until I went for a blood test. You don’t ever think it might happen to you.
“But I soon found out HIV doesn’t discriminate - and that moment changed my life forever.”
Later, Andy developed AIDS-related meningitis and had to undergo life-saving brain surgery.
He urged straight people to practice safe sex to stop the virus spreading further.
He said: “Straight people need to be aware of the dangers. To be honest, I think the gay community are far more up to speed with it.
“They realise that if they have unprotected sex they are taking their lives in their hands.”
New HIV treatments have caused a steady drop in the yearly death toll – but experts warned this meant the disease was no longer seen as an automatic death sentence.
They said this meant many people, including in the gay community, now felt safer having unprotected sex.
Ross Boseley, health promotion coordinator at AIDS charity Terrence Higgins Trust, said the disease had “totally disappeared” from the public eye in recent years.
He said: “People just don’t have AIDS at the forefront of their minds any more. There’s a real lack of awareness.
“But the fact is the number of cases is going up. It’s not just about gay men, it’s about everybody.
“The generation that were around when AIDS first came out were told that it was the gay plague. They saw the tombstone ads and thought this was something that would never affect them.
“But many are now realising their mistake – and often too late.”
Even though attitudes toward AIDS have softened over the last few years, many charities warned continued stigma around the disease meant many people were slow to come forward for screening.
According to the Terrence Higgins Trust, this year in Brighton and Hove one sufferer was refused a medical procedure while another’s employers made it “impossible” for them to do their job.
In 2009 a national study reported that more than a third of people with HIV had experienced discrimination in the previous year.
John Percy is believed to be one of Britain’s longest surviving HIV sufferers, having lived with the virus since 1981.
He was forced to move away from Brighton after being beaten up in a random attack outside a nightclub.
He said: “I would actually say stigma against people with HIV is increasing.
“Brighton is terrible for it – that’s why I had to leave. I had so much grief from other gay men.
“What many people don’t realise is the stigma of sufferers within the gay community.”
Ross Boseley, a health promotion coordinator at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “Many of our clients talk about difficulties with new partners and at work.
“Things may be getting better but there’s a lot of work still to be done so people can feel completely comfortable coming forward.”
The trust is calling on people across the city to sign up for its anti-stigma campaign Stand Up, Stand Out.
To get involved locally, call the trust on 01273 764200 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
An informal training session on HIV will take place at THT on Ship Street, Brighton, between 1-2pm on Thursday November 29. For advice call 01273 764200.
HIV testing is offered in several settings across the city, including the Claude Nicol Centre at the Sussex County Hospital.
More information can be found at www.brightonsexualhealth.com/health_promotion.
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