Geneva: HIV infections are rising among gay men in many parts of the world, the World Health Organization today warned, urging all men who have sex with men to take antiretroviral drugs to prevent infection.
"We are seeing exploding epidemics," warned Gottfried Hirnschall, who heads WHO's HIV department. Infection rates are rising again among men who have sex with men -- the group at the epicentre of AIDS pandemic when it first emerged 33 years ago, he told reporters in Geneva. While images of skeletal men dying of AIDS in the 1980s pushed the world to act, a younger generation that has grown up among new treatments that make it possible to live with HIV are less focused on the disease, he suggested.
Today, this group is 19 times more likely than the general population to be infected by HIV, Hirnschall said. In Bangkok for instance, the incidence of HIV among men who have sex with men stands at 5.7 per cent, compared to less than 1.0 per cent for the overall population, he said. In its new recommendations for combatting the HIV/AIDS pandemic, published today, the UN health agency therefore for the first time "strongly recommends men who have sex with men consider taking antiretroviral medicines as an additional method of preventing HIV infection".
US authorities made the same recommendation in May. Taking pre-exposure prophylaxis medication, for instance as a single daily pill combining two antiretrovirals, in addition to using condoms, has been estimated to cut HIV incidence among such men by 20-25 per cent, WHO said, stressing that this could avert "up to one million new infections among this group over 10 years". The new guidelines also focus on other high-risk groups, pointing out that men who have sex with men, transgender people, prisoners, people who inject drugs and sex workers together account for about half of all new HIV infections worldwide. At the same time, they are often the very groups who have least access to healthcare services, with criminalisation and stigma often dissuading them from seeking help even when it is available. When people fear seeking health care services it "will inevitably lead to more infections in those communities," Rachel Baggaley, of the WHO's HIV department, told reporters. Globally, transgender women and injecting drug users, for instance, are around 50 times more likely than the general population to contract HIV, while sex workers have a 14-fold higher chance of getting infected, WHO said.