AIDS in Britain: why complacency is justified

Heterosexual AIDS has remained a mercifully rare disease - and it is getting rarer.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

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According to public health supremo Dr Angus Nicoll, ‘None of us can afford to be complacent about HIV – the safer sex message applies to everyone’ (1).

The good news that is worrying the medical moralists is that, after all the doomsday scenarios – and not forgetting the devastation it is causing in parts of Africa – AIDS is a declining problem in Britain. The figures show that, some 20 years after the first cases of AIDS in Britain, it remains confined to well-recognised high-risk categories.

While ‘safer sex’ makes sense for those at high risk, everyone else can indeed afford to be complacent and enjoy an active sex life without worrying about the dangers of AIDS.

When I joined my current practice in Hackney some 15 years ago, there was a general expectation that we would soon be looking after large numbers of AIDS cases. It is a large inner London practice in which the main risk groups for HIV – gay men, drug users, immigrants from Africa – are well represented.

My first patient with AIDS died shortly after I started; I well remember talking to his mother, who had come over from Northern Ireland to make the simultaneous discoveries that her son was gay and that he was dying of AIDS. My colleagues dutifully registered for courses on the management of AIDS and its complications.

But the anticipated influx of AIDS cases has never happened. We have had a few more over the years and a slowly rising number of patients who are HIV positive. (One early case who appeared wearing a t-shirt proclaiming his HIV positivity, and had received diverse benefits and services on the strength of this, and was a regular attendee at several specialist hospital clinics, subsequently turned out to be negative.)

Yet, even though Britain’s HIV/AIDS epidemic remains highly concentrated in London, it has yet to make much of an impact on general practice, even on a practice like ours. We try to keep abreast of the new treatments, but have gained little practical experience of using them.

One reason for the dearth of AIDS cases in general practice is that, given the slow growth of the epidemic, specialist centres – at most of the major London hospitals – are inclined to hang on to their AIDS patients. Special units which handed patients back to their GPs would soon face a declining workload, with the resulting loss of funding and ultimate risk of closure.

Given the relatively high level of resources available to AIDS care, with its privileged access to celebrity fund-raising as well as dedicated health and social care revenues, patients too prefer to attend the superior facilities provided in specialist centres.

However, the most important reason for our lack of AIDS patients is the simple fact that the epidemic in Britain has turned out to be much smaller than predicted. Far from spreading rapidly to affect wider and wider sections of the population, it has remained highly circumscribed.

Furthermore, after reaching a peak in the mid-1990s, the epidemic has subsequently sharply declined. In the early 1990s, new cases passed 1000 a year, to reach a peak of 1853 in 1994; in 2001 some 558 new cases were recorded. The total of deaths from AIDS follows a similar course, reaching a peak of 1531 in 1994 and declining to 221 in 2001.

There are a number of reasons for the decline in size and virulence of the AIDS epidemic in Britain. Community activism among gay men, still the main group affected by AIDS, has undoubtedly helped to slow the spread of HIV, while new drug regimes have dramatically improved the outlook of people who are HIV positive. The spectre of widespread dissemination of HIV through needle-sharing by drug abusers has never materialised. This may be partly attributable to needle-exchange schemes, but also reflects the small scale and highly localised character of intravenous drug use in Britain.

The big untold story of AIDS in Britain is that the epidemic explosion among heterosexuals that was anticipated in the 1980s has never happened. This story is partly obscured by the conflation of cases of HIV and AIDS acquired through heterosexual contact in countries with large-scale epidemics (notably in Africa) and cases in which infection has been acquired in Europe. Let’s look first at the extension of the African AIDS problem into Britain.

During the 1990s I attended several meetings of doctors in East London at which alarming statistics were presented about the high prevalence of HIV infection that had been discovered in antenatal screening testing at Newham General Hospital. These figures – ‘1 in 64’ has stuck in my mind – were used to illustrate the spread of HIV in a population of confirmed heterosexual activity, in which no other risk factor was declared. They were held to confirm that HIV was spreading at a terrifying rate among heterosexuals in Britain, even in a nondescript east London borough like Newham, hence justifying an alarmist ‘everyone is at risk’ safer sex crusade.

Discreet inquiries revealed that the relatively high rate of HIV recorded in Newham was virtually entirely attributable to a small pocket of refugees from Uganda. In other words, the figures told nothing about HIV spread among British heterosexuals; they merely confirmed the presence in the capital of a small sample of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. (Given the traditional inhospitality of the citizens of Newham towards newly arriving immigrants, the risks of wider spread must be regarded as remote.)

In recent weeks, the particular plight of patients who have acquired HIV infection overseas (usually in Africa) and are now presenting at London hospitals, have received some media coverage. There can be no doubt that their problems are serious and need special attention. My main concern here, however, is with the way these cases are used to boost the statistics of heterosexual transmission of HIV in Britain to bolster the flagging AIDS scare.

If we look, for example, at the figures for heterosexually acquired HIV infection in 2001, we find a total of 2226. This has been widely quoted to illustrate the rising tide of heterosexual transmission at a time when spread among gay men is declining. Yet closer scrutiny reveals that more than 1500 of this total refers to HIV infection acquired in Africa. Add another 163 cases of infection acquired in other non-European countries and these cases make up more than 75 percent of the heterosexual total.

How many people became HIV positive as a result of heterosexual contact with a partner who became infected in Europe? This figure – the key statistic of the indigenous heterosexual epidemic – is 52 (2.3 percent of the total). It is noteworthy that this number has remained remarkably steady over the past decade.

Looking at AIDS cases reveals even more starkly the small size of the British epidemic among heterosexuals. In 2001, the number of cases of AIDS in which infection was acquired by heterosexual contact with a partner who had become infected in Europe was 13. This marks a decline from an average of 19 cases a year through the 1990s (the peak year was 1994 with 28 cases).

In the whole of the 1980s there were 20 cases. Heterosexual AIDS, the great bogey launched with the government’s ‘tombstones and icebergs’ campaign in 1987, has remained a mercifully rare disease – and it is getting rarer.

For 15 years, medical and political authorities have been manipulating AIDS statistics to inflate popular fears of an imminent heterosexual epidemic. Having invested so much in this strategy, it seems they are reluctant to let the good news about the decline of the epidemic interfere with their moralising message. Thus Dr Nicoll quotes with alarm surveys that report an ‘increase in numbers of sexual partners, lower age at first sexual intercourse, increasing levels of heterosexual anal sex and payment for sex’. ‘All of these’, he insists, ‘are known to be associated with HIV transmission’.

These may all be activities of which Dr Nicoll disapproves, but in communities in which the prevalence of HIV is likely to be negligible, they can be indulged in with impunity without risk of HIV transmission. Dr Nicholl is entitled to his sexual preferences, but he is not entitled to inflate risks of serious diseases to scare the public into following them.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism, Routledge, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, Routledge, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA). He is also a contributor to Alternative Medicine: Should We Swallow It? Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Statistics are from AIDS/HIV Quarterly Surveillance Tables: cumulative data to end of March 2002, No 54: 02/1, May 2002, Public Health Laboratory Service AIDS Centre

Read on:

The AIDS panic in perspective, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

AIDS in Africa: why the West is interested, by Dr Stuart Derbyshire

(1) Public Health Laboratory Service

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