Alarming new statistics have revealed a significant number of sexually active men on Melbourne’s social scene are not aware they are HIV positive.
The Suck It and See study — the first of its kind in Australia — was conducted by the Burnet Institute in 2008 and collected anonymous saliva samples from 745 men from gay bars and clubs, sex-on-premises venues (SOPV) and sexual health clinics.
The results released this week revealed that about 10 percent of socially and sexually active men recruited to the survey were HIV positive.
Of the 100 men in the study who tested positive from a wider spectrum (not only from social venues), 20 percent were unaware they had HIV. Of the 639 men recruited specifically through social venues (including SOPVs), 61 tested positive, and 31 percent (or 19 men) were unaware they were HIV positive.
Head researcher Dr Mark Stoovè told Southern Star it was important not to generalise the results to the whole gay male population, however, he said the study indicates those engaging in risky sexual behaviour face an alarming risk.
“Our message to the community is that if you’ve had unprotected anal intercourse since your last HIV test, or if you’re socially or sexually active and haven’t had a HIV test in the last six months, we really encourage diagnostic testing.
“We know through our research and health promotion work with the Victorian AIDS Council that the messages around universal condom use were very much in vogue in the early health promotion stages of HIV, but are not what I would call realistic health promotion messages in 2009.
“Sexual risk behaviour and HIV prevention behaviours have become more nuanced in terms of gay men being aware of viral load … and other ways of diminishing risk of transmitting HIV.”
Those in the high risk category, who may still be unaware of their HIV status, included men aged in their 30s, recruited to take part in the study in SOPVs, who reported multiple sexual partners, and unprotected anal intercourse in the previous six months.
Victorian AIDS Council executive officer Mike Kennedy urged anyone who took part in the survey to test their HIV status immediately. As the survey was anonymous, the identity of the 19 men unaware of their status is unknown.
Kennedy said the data were significant in giving the first solid indication of actual prevalence rates, as opposed to estimated rates. Results, however, will not affect the way the VAC frames its sexual health message.
“What we’re saying is that the best possible situation is that people are able to have a frank discussion with their doctor about how often they should test,” Kennedy said.
“If you’re HIV negative and you’re engaging in unprotected sex with a casual partner whose status you can’t be sure of, then you’re not in a position to say with any degree of confidence, ‘I’m satisfied I’m HIV negative’.
“The safest way to protect yourself is still to use condoms with water-based lube, particularly with casual partners. That message isn’t going to change at all.”
info: Those who took part in the survey should contact their GP for a HIV test.