You may have seen the new Do It London campaign advert in Boyz or you might have seen their posters on a bus stop or tube station billboard near you. David Bridle reports on the campaign’s new message and talks to Paul Steinberg, Lead Commissioner of the London HIV Prevention Programme.
These days you’d be forgiven for thinking sexual health is all about PrEP; HIV negative gay men taking preventative drugs to protect themselves against HIV. And there’s no doubt that PrEP is already and will continue to make a lasting impact on the number of new HIV transmissions amongst gay men in the UK. The new NHS PrEP trial will make the preventative drugs available from sexual health clinics to HIV negative gay men thought to be at high risk of becoming infected and at no cost to them, unlike currently when many gay men are buying their PrEP themselves online.
But all the focus on PrEP means it’s easy to forget there are other ways to protect yourself from HIV. The latest campaign from Do It London encourages Londoners to “do it your way” by advocating that HIV prevention consists of a combination of options.
This range of options includes using condoms, testing regularly for the virus, using PrEP and, for people who have been diagnosed HIV positive, achieving an undetectable viral load through the use of antiretroviral medication.
The new campaign follows two years of successful Do It London social marketing to promote HIV testing and safer sex in the capital. During that same period, HIV diagnoses in the capital dropped dramatically, with a record 40 per cent reduction in new diagnoses in five central London clinics. Such a dramatic fall was not seen in the rest of England. Cllr Kevin Davis, London Councils’ Executive member for health, explained: “HIV remains a serious public health issue for London and the new Do It London campaign demonstrates that London boroughs are taking a collective pan-London approach to addressing this. In these difficult financial times, Londoners can be proud that their councils are leading this important work via a dedicated city-wide HIV prevention programme.”
Independent evaluation of last year’s Do It London campaign, conducted by Research Now, found that over 68 per cent of people who had seen the campaign reported it had positively influenced their behaviour towards HIV testing, whilst 66 per cent felt it had influenced their sexual behaviour (e.g. practising safe sex).
Paul Steinberg, Lead Commissioner of the London HIV Prevention Programme said: “This new campaign is rooted in clear and emerging evidence that combination prevention is having a positive impact in reducing HIV transmission in London. Do It London has made a major contribution to the substantial increases in HIV testing in the city, with very positive consequences for early diagnosis, treatment and prevention.
“We are very pleased that this new campaign also publicises PrEP and undetectable status for the first time, as part of a combination of measures to prevent HIV.”
The new campaign introduces the concept of achieving an undetectable HIV status. Recent scientific studies have confirmed that the risk of acquiring HIV from an infected person who takes antiretroviral medication, with an undetectable viral load in their blood for at least six months, is negligible to non-existent. Undetectable means that the virus, whilst still present in the body, is effectively suppressed and no longer detectable in standard blood tests. Therefore, being undetectable means a person cannot transmit HIV through sex.
By giving equal status to condoms alongside PrEP, the Do It London campaign is reminding us all of the continuing risks of other STIs, beyond HIV, such as syphilis and the growing risks to our health from hepatitis and liver disease. As PrEP reduces HIV rates and boosts the amount of condomless sex gay men are having, are there greater health risks awaiting our community around the corner?
The Do It London campaign has a newly updated website which provides detailed information about each HIV prevention choice. Do It London also continues its condom scheme which provides over 1 million free condoms every year, as well as sexual health outreach work in London’s gay pubs, bars and clubs.