Safe-sex message needs reinforcing
Despite a global decline in new HIV infections, Hong Kong had a record number last year of 438, more than a 12 per cent increase over the 389 in 2010. In public health terms, that is disappointing rather than alarming. HIV prevalence in the city remains low by international standards at less than 0.1 per cent, compared with the level of 1 per cent at which infection is deemed to be widespread. Nonetheless, health authorities are concerned about the number of new cases among men having sex with men - the highest among all at-risk groups - a trend also found in other parts of Asia. This suggests complacency and the need to refresh and reinforce the safe-sex message.
At the same time, more gay men are presenting themselves for HIV testing, which is a good sign. Centre for Health Protection consultant Dr Wong Ka-hing said this helps explain the higher new-infection number, following declines in the previous two years. In the absence of a vaccine for HIV-Aids, early testing and diagnosis has emerged as the next best thing. Apart from the importance of early diagnosis and anti-retroviral drug therapy in halting the development of Aids and related life-threatening illnesses, early testing is now credited with reining in the spread of the disease by alerting carriers and reducing the amount of virus in body fluids. A recent study by the UN Programme on HIV/Aids indicated that early treatment of HIV can reduce the risk of transmission by 96 per cent.
Internationally the challenge for the health authorities and HIV/Aids activists is to ensure the flow of billions of dollars in increased funding needed to expand access to drugs and for education to combat social factors that inhibit delivery of treatment. If Hong Kong is to stay beneath the world HIV/Aids radar, the authorities must stay on message about the effectiveness of condoms in ensuring safe sex, and the need for high-risk groups including drug users, sex workers and people with multiple sexual partners to have regular check-ups.