Rising STIs mean condoms still have important role to play

This week sees the launch of the new “Do It London” campaign, focusing on safer sex in London. It follows a successful summer drive promoting HIV testing in the capital.

Paul Steinberg, Lead Commissioner of the London HIV Prevention Programme, tells us more…

Last year could prove to have been a crucial tipping point in the fight against HIV. Recent news of a dramatic reduction in HIV diagnoses in four major London GUM clinics has had everyone working in the field excited and hopeful. Many are citing it as a victory for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), which some gay men are already buying privately as it’s still not available on the NHS. Yet officials are also advising caution until we get the full picture from other London clinics and the rest of the UK.

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One thing’s clear though: this is a great development for our community, after year-on-year rises in HIV diagnoses since the turn of the century. And it points to the effectiveness of a combination of efforts and interventions to tackle the virus during 2016, including the impact of testing campaigns.

“Combination prevention” remains at the heart of the London HIV Prevention Programme’s strategy. This means focusing not just on one intervention alone, but rather on the importance of multiple methods of prevention working together. This is neatly summed up in Do It London’s tagline “Test and Protect to Prevent HIV”.

Maintaining your sexual health will always involve a variety of methods at different stages of your life and relationships. Above all else, sex should be pleasurable, fulfilling and fun. Good sexual health often begins with simple precautions, like condoms, as well as clinical interventions when needed. Regular testing is a key element, alongside other barrier methods (like gloves for fingering or fisting), PrEP, Treatment as Prevention (TasP) and emergency Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP). Arguably the most important factor underlying all these elements is creating a culture that enables people to have honest, open conversations about HIV/STI status without fear or rejection or stigma.

Since 2015, we are proud to have created Do It London: a dedicated, capital-wide HIV and sexual health promotion campaign which speaks to all Londoners, regardless of their sexual orientation or ethnic background, and which treats the topic in a grown-up, honest way. Evaluation of our three unique campaigns in the last eighteen months – two which promoted HIV testing, a third which promoted safer sex – has revealed the extent to which they have significantly contributed to growing awareness and reported behaviour change around testing and safer sex. This is all supported by the programme’s ongoing free condom service and “Do It London” outreach teams, expertly delivered by our partners in the NHS and GMI Partnership across the gay scene.

But despite these positive developments, last week’s news had a sting in its tail: rates of sexually transmitted infections in gay men in London are higher than ever, having risen year on year so far this decade.

The latest Do It London campaign, which launched last week, aims to remind Londoners of the important role condoms will still need to play in protecting us against rising STIs. Our research on HIV testing messages shows that, the more aware people are of the risks, the more likely they are to change their behaviour. That’s why the new campaign reveals straightforward facts without stoking unnecessary fear. Its call to action is simple and clear: ‘Do it with a condom’.

Between 2011 and 2015, gonorrhoea diagnoses rose by 210% among gay and bisexual men in London; syphilis went up by 128% in the same period. This isn’t just our problem – the statistics show smaller increases among all Londoners – but research shows that condomless sex is a major factor on sharp rises of all STIs among men who have sex with men.

Whilst some STIs, such as herpes, are actually incurable (though not fatal), others are becoming more difficult to cure. So-called ‘super-gonorrhoea’ is the bug that grabbed the headlines last year, with antibiotic resistance increasingly of concern for sexual health specialists. So, whilst we celebrate the breakthroughs in reducing HIV incidence, we need to renew our efforts to promote even better sexual health for London in the new year.

For more information and signposting to HIV and STI help visit: doitlondon.org

You can follow the campaign on Twitter @DoItLDN and Facebook DoItLDN

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