LGBT rights have a come a long way in the past fifty years, but there’s no denying that gay, lesbian and bisexual men and women around the world still face daily discrimination. As a result of this, a stigma still surrounds diseases such as HIV – which remains a particular risk for men who have sex with men. Many may find it unsurprising, then, to discover that a significant proportion of British men who describe themselves as exclusively heterosexual have contracted HIV by having sex with another man.
This discovery was made during a large study of HIV in the UK. Researchers carried out genetic analysis on a database of HIV-positive people, seeking out ‘clusters’ whose HIV shared a common ancestor. The clusters that were all male indicated that the people contained within that cluster had contracted HIV from sex with other men. Looking closer, the researchers found that 249 of the men in the all-male clusters had described themselves as heterosexual.
In the study, which is described in detail here, these men are labelled ‘non-disclosed men who have sex with men’ (ndMSM). It was found that ndMSM in the database were more likely to be of black African descent, and were typically on the edges of a cluster – meaning that they were usually linked to that specific HIV group by just one sexual partner.
The study, which was presented at the 2017 Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, is interesting to HIV/AIDS researchers, campaigners and doctors because, while the ndMSM were found on the edges of all-male clusters – meaning they had typically had one male partner and weren’t a high risk for spreading the virus to other men – they were often found to be the ‘viral link’ between heterosexual women and gay or bisexual men.
These kinds of findings point to a greater need for HIV and sex education, and – perhaps more importantly – a stronger push for the acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality. Men who label themselves heterosexual, but privately engage in sex with other men, could be putting their sexual partners at risk of infection. And unfortunately, it is MSM who need to be particularly aware of the risk of HIV – MSM only make up 2-3% of the male population and yet in 2015, more than half of the people newly diagnosed with HIV in the UK were MSM.
To find out more about HIV and how you can stay safe, read on.
What is HIV?
The human immunodeficiency virus is an infection that attacks your immune system, breaking down your body’s ability to fight off diseases. It is carried in bodily fluids and is most commonly transmitted through unprotected sex.
When left untreated, HIV can progress into AIDS, the final stage of infection. However, with the right treatment, this is now uncommon – in 2015, over 100,000 people were recorded as living with HIV, but only 305 were diagnosed with an AIDS-defining illness.
How is HIV spread?
HIV is carried in the bodily fluids of an infected person (blood, semen, vaginal and anal fluid, breast milk). It is not carried in sweat or urine.
The vast majority of people who contract HIV have had unprotected anal or vaginal sex with an infected person. Other activities which can lead to transmission include oral sex, sharing needles, sharing sex toys and receiving medical or dental care in a developing country.
How can I stay safe?
The best way to protect yourself against HIV is always to use condoms during sex when you aren’t sure your sexual partner is free from infection. You should also get tested for HIV if you are at risk of exposure – Public Health England recommends that MSM get tested every three months, if they are having sex without a condom with new or casual partners.
You can get tested at NHS centres for free, or you can send off for a home test kit from a service such as www.TheGUMClinic.com. Click here to find out more about their test.
Lastly, remember that communication is important: try to always be open and honest with your sexual partners, and encourage them to do the same. Concealing sexual behaviour, as we have seen with this study, can be a real risk.