The UK’s annual epidemiological report, released yesterday, shows that the country already provides HIV treatment to 90% of people attending clinical services and that 90% of those on treatment have an undetectable viral load. But the country has a long way to go in ensuring that people with HIV are aware of their HIV status – only 76% of people living with HIV have been diagnosed. The problem is particularly acute in black African communities, as only 62% of African heterosexual men and 69% of African heterosexual women living with HIV have been diagnosed.
The figures can be compared to the ambitious targets announced by UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS) this week: for 90% of all people living with HIV to know their status, 90% of those to be on treatment and 90% of those to have an undetectable viral load. If these figures could be achieved by 2020, the global AIDS epidemic would be all but over by 2030, UNAIDS said.
The UK appears to have achieved two out of three of the targets, but has a significant problem due to the high rates of undiagnosed infection. Overall, 61% of all people living with HIV in the UK have an undetectable viral load. This contrasts with the 73% that would be achieved if all three of UNAIDS’ 90/90/90 targets were accomplished.
New diagnoses, overall prevalence
Public Health England reports that 6000 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in the United Kingdom in 2013. The overall figure is lower than that seen a decade ago, due to fewer diagnoses among heterosexual men and women born in high-prevalence African countries. Among gay men, the number of diagnoses is as high as ever, with 3250 cases reported in 2013. An estimated 30% of the gay men diagnosed in 2013 were recently infected with HIV (within six months of their diagnosis).
There are now almost 110,000 people living with HIV in the country, including 26,000 who don’t know they have it. This can be broken down into risk groups:
- Gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (43,500 people; prevalence of 5.9%).
- Black African heterosexual women (25,100 people; prevalence of 7.1%).
- Black African heterosexual men (13,600 people; prevalence of 4.1%).
- Heterosexual women of other ethnicities (10,300 people; prevalence of 0.06%).
- Heterosexual men of other ethnicities (10,200 people; prevalence of 0.06%).
- People who inject drugs (2400 people; prevalence of 0.7%).
High rates of undiagnosed infection, especially in black African communities
Overall, 24% of people living with HIV are unaware that they have it. The rates of undiagnosed infection are lowest among gay men (16%) and people who inject drugs (10%).
In relation to black African people, it’s worth noting that in previous epidemiological reports the description of a person as ‘black African’ primarily depended on whether they were born in an African country. In contrast, the new report focuses on a person’s ethnicity, so that someone born in the UK to Nigerian parents is considered in the ‘African’ category. As a result of this and other methodological changes, some of the figures for undiagnosed infection are not directly comparable to previous years’ – and paint a more worrying picture.
In 2013, 31% of black African heterosexual women and 38% of black African heterosexual men who had HIV were unaware of their infection. Rates of undiagnosed infection were somewhat lower among heterosexual people of other ethnicities: 27% in men and 23% in women.
The report also shows that rates of undiagnosed infection are far worse outside London, compared to the capital. Outside London, 41% and 49% of African men and women were undiagnosed. In London, 10% and 13% were undiagnosed. There is some fuzziness to these estimates: the true values could be up to 10% higher or lower than the figures given here. But a clear geographic difference would still be observed. This could reflect stronger community networks and more accessible health services, including targeted prevention, in the capital.
Another way to consider undiagnosed infection is to look at rates of late diagnosis – people diagnosed with a CD4 cell count below 350 cells/mm3. Rates of late diagnosis were highest among heterosexual men (62%) and heterosexual women (51%), with black Africans especially likely to be diagnosed late. The lowest rate of late diagnosis was seen in gay men (31%). Across all groups, older people and non-Londoners were more likely to be diagnosed late.
But progress has been made over the past decade – the overall rate of late diagnosis has gone down from 57 to 42%.
A higher uptake of HIV testing, including more frequent testing, is needed to improve the figures on undiagnosed infection and late diagnosis. The report shows that, at sexual health clinics, 86% of gay male patients take an HIV test, but only 77% of heterosexual men and 67% of heterosexual women do so. Whereas guidelines recommend that all people attending sexual health clinics are offered an HIV test, only one-in-seven clinics test at least 80% of their heterosexual patients. Public Health England recommends that clinics review their policies and training protocols.
But while PHE has been able to collect data on HIV testing in sexual health clinics, none are available for testing in GP surgeries, in other medical settings, or in community settings. A significant improvement in the proportion of people living with HIV who are diagnosed is thought unlikely to occur without improved provision of testing in non-specialist settings, as recommended in guidelines. The report notes that less than one in five of the black-African population attended a sexual health clinic in the previous five years.
“Reductions in undiagnosed infection can be achieved through increasing testing coverage in STI clinics, the introduction and consolidation of HIV testing in a variety of different medical services, in addition to further development of community testing, including self-sampling,” PHE comment.
Quality of care for people living with HIV
Considering the next stages of the ‘treatment cascade’ and the National Health Service’s performance in relation to UNAIDS’ targets, the report shows that 90% of people were linked to care within a month of their diagnosis (98% within three months). Moreover, 95% of those who received care in 2012 were retained in care in 2013. Results did not vary according to age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality or geographical area.
Further, 90% of people in care received antiretroviral therapy (up from 69% in 2004). This includes 92% of those with a CD4 cell count below 350 cells/mm3. Of all people taking treatment, 90% had an undetectable viral load, below 200 cells/ml.
Generally there was equality in treatment outcomes, although younger people were less likely to be taking therapy. Moreover, people in both the youngest (15-24 years) and the oldest (over 50) age groups were less likely to have an undetectable viral load.
Guidelines recommend that clinicians discuss treatment as prevention with patients, and give them the option to start treatment early for this reason. Probably as a result, average CD4 cell counts when starting treatment have risen in recent years. In 2013, 25% began treatment with a CD4 cell count between 350 and 500 cells/mm3, and a further 26% did so above 500 cells/mm3.
Public Health England. HIV in the United Kingdom: 2014 Report.