Figures released today in a report by the Health Protection Agency show that almost half (42%) of all African individuals diagnosed with HIV in the UK are missing out on the benefits that come from early diagnosis including improved life expectancy, because they are diagnosed late – that is, after a point at which treatment should have started.
According to the report, Sexually transmitted infections in black African and black Caribbean communities in the UK 2008, there were 2,691 black African's diagnosed with HIV in 2007.
The report emphasises the importance of early diagnosis in black African and Caribbean communities and calls for HIV testing to be extensively promoted in the African population so that people can get tested and start treatment sooner.
The report additionally provides sexual health advice on how best to control and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections and HIV, including the recommendation of an annual chlamydia test for all sexually active young people.
Dr Barry Evans, Consultant Epidemiologist and Head of the Health Protection Agency's HIV Unit said: "HIV is a serious infection and the fact that such a high percentage of black Africans are getting diagnosed late highlights the need for raised awareness in this community.
"People need to know that testing for HIV and all sexually transmitted infections is both free and confidential at Genitourinary Medicine (GUM) clinics (sexual health clinics) across the UK. If you have had unprotected sex with a new or casual partner you should go and get tested."
"Awareness of where to get tested and what NHS services are available to people with HIV infection and encouraging access to these services are all challenges which health professionals face to ensure that people get diagnosed as early as possible.
"Recent medical guidelines have encouraged widespread testing for HIV in areas where there is a high prevalence of diagnosed HIV, which should also contribute to improving awareness of the infection in this community and therefore increasing testing.
Professor Mike Catchpole, Director of the Health Protection Agency's Centre for Infections, said: "The sooner HIV and other sexually transmitted infections are diagnosed and treated, the less likely it is they will be passed on."
"We need to continually reinforce the safe sex message - using a condom with all new or casual partners is the surest way to ensure you do not become infected with a serious sexually transmitted infection such as HIV."
Deborah Jack, Chief Executive of NAT (The National AIDS Trust), said: "The alarming proportion of late HIV diagnoses amongst Africans in the UK results in increased illness, death and further infections. We need to expand HIV testing urgently outside sexual health clinics – GPs in particular need to start testing for HIV and play their part in tackling this public health challenge."
Will Nutland, Strategic Lead for Health Promotion and Health Improvement at the Terrence Higgins Trust, said: "These figures highlight the need for a clear focus on tackling HIV amongst Africans living in the UK. We need investment and carefully targeted campaigns if we are to reduce the numbers of people being diagnosed late. Over the coming year, Terrence Higgins Trust and others will be working together to reduce undiagnosed HIV by raising awareness, improving access to testing services and working to reduce the stigma that still exists."
Titise Kode, Chief Executive Officer of the African HIV Policy Network, said: "The HPA report illustrates the dire need for a targeted well resourced and evidence based response that is informed by African people, especially people living with HIV. The fact that a significant number of African people are being diagnosed late also indicates that people are not obtaining the full benefits from the treatment they need to stay alive. The African HIV Policy Network (AHPN), through its member organisations, continues to analyse the health needs of African people and address the inequalities that exacerbate the impact of HIV. Efforts to reinforce testing campaigns and the evaluation of successful strategies lie at the heart of our work to empower Africans affected by HIV."