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Hong Kong health care and hospitals

HIV and chemsex on rise in Hong Kong among men who have sex with men, new survey finds

Centre for Health Protection interviewed 4,133 men for study, which found infection rate in city had risen by more than 2 percentage points

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 May, 2018, 6:49pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 5:28pm

More men who have sex with men in Hong Kong are contracting HIV and bringing the infection rate for the group to a new high, according to data collected by the city’s health authorities.

Among members of the group, one in 15 reportedly has the virus, the highest number since health authorities began collecting data on the prevalence of the virus among this group.

The Centre for Health Protection’s fourth HIV Prevalence and Risk Behavioural Survey last year found 6.54 per cent of 4,133 respondents who said they had sex with men have HIV, compared to about 4 per cent of respondents in the previous three surveys.

In those surveys, between 843 and 996 men were interviewed.

Dr Kenny Chan Chi-wai, consultant of the centre’s special preventive programme, said the latest figure was still lower than the rate of infection in some major Southeast Asian cities, where about 10 per cent are believed to have HIV.

World Health Organisation figures from 2015 found the estimated median HIV prevalence ranged from 4.3 per cent in Southeast Asia, to 14.9 per cent in the African region.

“Is 6.54 per cent a figure we should be happy with? Definitely not,” Chan said, noting that the centre would continue promoting safe sex within the community.

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The survey also found that more men in the group had used recreational drugs before or during sex in the past six months – with 16.2 per cent of respondents saying so compared to 12.3 per cent in the 2011 survey.

Members of the gay community had in previous media interviews suggested that the number of those involved in chemsex, as the practice is known, had increased due to the availability of drugs such as Poppers and Ice, and use of hook-up apps like Grindr, that made it easier for people to search out casual sex partners.

“Chemsex … probably enhanced their [sexual] experience, but also lowered the guard of the person in terms of whether or not they should use a condom,” Chan said.

The survey found that 52 per cent of respondents said they had used a condom every time in the last six months, though they were not asked to specify if this was with regular or casual sex partners.

Besides having the largest sample size, the fourth HIV Prevalence and Risk Behaviour Survey also canvassed 104 transgender women, who reported HIV prevalence of 5.11 per cent, while 16.8 per cent said they engaged in chemsex.

The methodology of this survey was also different. In past surveys, the research team interviewed men who had sex with men in person at various venues, with an additional 180 men asked to complete an online questionnaire in the 2011 survey.

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Last year, the team recruited respondents from various venues and through online sites, but all of them did their questionnaire online, without having to use their real names. They were also asked to complete a urine test, with a little more than half of men who have sex with men, and a similar percentage of transgender women doing so.

According to information gathered during the surveys, the percentage of men who have sex with men going for HIV testing had increased over the years from 36 per cent a decade ago, to 52.6 per cent last year, while the figure was 41.3 per cent for transgender women last year.

To push up the testing rate to the city’s target of 80 per cent, Chan said they would encourage at-risk communities to use self-testing kits, an approach that was promoted by organisations like the World Health Organisation.

A finger prick or oral fluid using a self-testing kit can determine if a person is infected in 20 to 30 minutes and a trial scheme was launched in Taiwan last year, with people able to purchase the kit online for about HK$53 and pick it up at convenience stores.

They would get a refund if the results were reported back to health authorities, who are assessing the outcome of the scheme.

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Marco Wong Ka-chung, head of marketing and communications from Aids Concern, an NGO, said the higher prevalence rate reported among men who had sex with men could be because more people were taking tests to see if they were infected.

“More men who had sex with men were aware of their health and received testing,” said Wong, adding that more men had visited his organisation to receive tests.

However, Wong said it remained unclear why there was an increasing trend of use of drugs for sex among this group.

He said his group has been working with organisations that served people with drug abuse to let them know skills in approaching members of the LGBT community.

Meanwhile, health authorities also released the latest HIV/Aids figures for January to March this year.

There were a total of 142 additional HIV cases, consisting of 122 men and 20 women, and 28 cases of Aids, which is caused by the virus. Hong Kong has diagnosed 9,233 HIV cases since 1984, when the first infection in the city was recorded.