With health services and HIV prevention organisations now
having relentlessly focused on HIV testing for several years, new data suggest
that more English gay men have recently taken an HIV test, have good knowledge
of HIV testing and were happy with testing services. But the data, from the 2014 Gay Men’s Sex
Survey, also include signs of decreases in basic knowledge of safer sex and of
poorer access to condoms.
“Are we putting all our prevention needs in one testing basket?”
Ford Hickson of Sigma Research asked the HIV Prevention England conference in
Over the last decade, HIV testing has become a public health
priority and many more clinical services have invited gay and bisexual men to
test. An increasing proportion of HIV prevention campaigns have focused on
testing and many local HIV prevention services have offered testing as part of
their outreach work. But some feel that some of the other ‘bread and butter’
issues of HIV prevention may have been neglected.
The data presented were the first to emerge from the 2014
Gay Men’s Sex Survey, which recruited a large convenience sample of men through
dating websites and apps, Facebook promotion and HIV organisations.
The data are cross-sectional, but comparisons are made
between the surveys conducted in 2010 and 2014. In order to improve the
validity of these comparisons, only men recruited through dating websites and
apps are included (the other recruitment methods weren’t used in 2010).
Moreover, there was statistical adjustment for observed differences between the
samples (geographical area, average age, level of education, employment and
identifying as ‘gay’). The comparison is of 11,519 men in 2010 and 6784 men in
The proportion that had ever taken an HIV test rose, from
72% in 2010 to 77% in 2014.
But the biggest changes were in how recently the test had
been taken. Across the sample, the proportion that had tested for HIV in the
past year jumped from 43% in 2010 to 56% in 2014. Amongst those who had ever
tested, the proportion who had done so in the past year increased from 66 to
The differences between 2010 and 2014 were statistically
significant after adjustment for confounding factors.
But as more men were tested, a lower proportion were diagnosed with HIV at that test. Moreover those diagnosed reported similar CD4 cell counts in the two surveys, suggesting that the
increase in the frequency of HIV testing may have primarily occurred in men who remained HIV negative.
The increase in testing volume was not at the expense of
service quality. In 2014, 80% of those testing negative and 84% of those
testing positive were ‘very satisfied’ with the way the service kept their
confidentiality; and 79% of those testing negative and 82% of those testing
positive were ‘very satisfied’ with the respect they were treated with. These
figures were actually higher than they had been in 2010. Fewer men testing
negative received counselling in 2014, but this did not affect men’s
On indicators of basic knowledge about HIV testing,
there were no changes between the surveys. Only 3% did not know that you can’t
work out someone’s HIV status from their appearance, 1% did not know that
testing exists and 10% were not aware that tests have window periods. Men
remained confident that they could get an HIV test if they wanted one.
proportion of men expressing some degree of doubt or uncertainty about their own
HIV-negative status increased. This is in keeping with the aims of health
promotion – people who have taken a sexual risk since their last HIV test
should not take their HIV-negative status for granted.
More worryingly, gaps in knowledge of safer sex appear to be
widening. These changes were small but statistically significant. Compared to
2010, more men did not know that
sexually transmitted infections increase the risk of HIV transmission (up from
39 to 42%), that the insertive sexual partner (‘top’) can acquire HIV during
anal sex (up from 10 to 15%) or that HIV cannot be passed on during kissing (up
from 19 to 21%).
And more men reported problems getting hold of condoms. In
the past month, 7.7% of men had wanted a condom but did not have one and 5.2%
had had unprotected sex for that reason. (The 2010 figures were 6.5 and 3.8%
Ford Hickson suggested that health organisations’ singular
focus on HIV testing – sometimes to the expense of education around safer sex
or condom distribution programmes – may be having an impact. While HIV testing
has improved, needs around safer sex have got worse.