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Exploring the rise in HIV numbers in Hong Kong

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Arthur Tam finds out why there’s now a ‘record breaking’ number of new HIV cases in the city’s gay male population

Ever since AIDS hit the headlines and terrified the world in the 1980s, developed countries have done fairly well in holding the spread at bay. Increases in the amount of cases have plateaued and there’s been a pretty positive effort to combat the stigma that affects those living with HIV. In Hong Kong, the story has been similar. The public – in general – has been well educated on prevention methods and the city actually ranks as one of the lowest in the world for cases, with just 0.1 percent of the population living with HIV, the virus which can cause AIDS. Sounds like pretty good news, right?

Wrong. According to a recent report from the Department of Health, Hong Kong has just seen a record-breaking number of new HIV cases – the biggest amount since since 1984 – with 153 new cases, of which 125 are men and 28 women, being recorded in the third quarter of last year. And 23 cases of AIDS were also detected in that period. It’s on the rise in Hong Kong and most of those affected are gay men or more specifically MSMs – men who have sex with men.

For the past decade, gay activists have been trying to convince the public to shake the perception that HIV is a ‘gay disease’ but these new numbers won’t help at all. Out of the 2,446 known HIV cases in Hong Kong, 1,836 fall into the MSM group. “We see an average of 60 to 70 new cases per quarter coming from MSMs,” says Dr Wong Ka-hing, consultant to the Department of Health, before we float the idea that maybe more MSMs are getting tested these days. “Regardless,” interjects Wong. “That doesn’t explain why there are high numbers within the MSM population. They are still a high-risk group.”

Another idea that’s been floated is there’s a ‘false sense of security’ in the gay community. “There is this contrast between people who grew up in the 80s and the current generation,” says Andrew Chidgey, chief executive of AIDS Concern – a non-profit organisation aimed at HIV awareness and prevention. “There isn’t that same fear in quite a lot of people. HIV doesn’t make the top of the list when people think about sex – but people need to know that it can happen just one time to people of all sexualities.”

And then there’s drug use to consider too, apparently. “We don’t have proper empirical data yet,” says Wong, “but, from my impression, there seems to be more prevalent drug use within the gay male population compared to the heterosexual population – psychotropic drugs, ketamine, ecstasy, methamphetamines. This could be a contributing factor.”

Although modern medication has changed the perception of HIV as a terminal disease, there are still serious issues to address in Hong Kong. Most medications carry side effects like erratic blood sugar changes, kidney toxicity or allergies. “There are just too many new medications coming out that we really have no idea what the long-term effects will be,” says Wong.

New prevention campaigns have sprung up over the past few months to combat this ‘record breaking’ increase in cases. AIDS Concern has come out with the slogan ‘I’m positive about being positive’ as an anti-stigma campaign, with celebrities in support. “We think it’s an effective campaign in shedding a more positive light on HIV,” says Chidgey. “All the press stories are usually negative but, by being ‘positive’, it helps create a dialogue where people are more receptive in seeking support.”

It’s the start of a new year – and what better way to begin than by getting tested for HIV. If the results are positive, groups in Hong Kong want you to know that there’s ample support – and the faster someone is on medication, the more improved chances they have of living a healthy life and dramatically reducing the risk of infecting others.

For Wong and Chidgey, the next step is to focus on the behavioural aspects associated with why individuals risk having unprotected sex. “We have to figure out what other incentives there are to reduce risk,” says Wong. “The cure is still very far away and HIV remains the most stigmatised disease.”

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