Jane Parry: How many cases will it take for policymakers to realize there is a HIV problem in Hong Kong?

jane_parry3Announcing the most recent HIV statistics for Hong Kong yesterday, the Department of Health’s Centre for Health Protection reported 154 new cases from January to March this year. In effect, almost every day two more people became infected with a preventable disease that requires lifelong adherence to a drug regimen in order to stay alive.

Hong Kong’s schools are failing to teach young people even the most basic facts about safe sex, let alone giving them a forum to safely discuss and learn about sexuality. This shows in the sexual practices of young people: research by local non-governmental organisation AIDS Concern last year, for example, found that among 121 young people aged 14 to 21, 40.5% did not use condoms while having sex.

Another consequence of failing to give young people proper sex and sexuality education is a low awareness of the risk of HIV infection, and the perpetuation of stigmatizing social attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, and towards people living with HIV. For almost all of the new cases for which there was a confirmed transmission route, unprotected sex accounted for all but one case (which was via injecting drug use).

In a recent conversation with AIDS Concern’s chief executive, Andrew Chidgey, he explained that stigma and ignorance continue to make their outreach and education work difficult. “Some people don’t want to get engaged in knowing about HIV. It’s not something they want to be associated with,” he told me. When AIDS Concern staff talk to people who get tested, and to people living with HIV, they find that most were infected through unprotected sex. Chidgey attributes this to a number of reasons: people aren’t as aware as they have been in the past about the risks and dangers of unprotected sex, complacency about treatment in the era of antiretroviral therapy, and a lack of information. “The sex education that’s going on is still very limited to reproduction and not about relationships and sex,” he says.

Particularly worrying is that 84 out of the 154 newly reported cases were among men who have sex with men, continuing a trend that has emerged in recent years. The Centre for Health Protection’s consultant (Special Preventive Programme), Dr Wong Ka-hing, admitted to local media that it has so far been unable to develop an effective strategy to address the spread of HIV among the gay community. The CHP is conducting a study among gay men to try and better understand the prevalence of HIV among the gay community.

I do hope the Centre will work closely with local NGOs, like AIDS Concern, which clearly have their finger more on the pulse of the gay community. The organization is already collaborating with the Chinese University of Hong Kong to conduct research into stigma associated with HIV and discrimination experienced by people living with the virus in Hong Kong.

Initial findings, using the widely respected People Living with HIV Stigma Index, found that half of the 291 survey respondents had “internalized stigmatizing beliefs about their identity as a person living with HIV.” Over a quarter had “experienced insults, avoidance, or discrimination from general healthcare workers” at accident and emergency units, as well as at general outpatient clinics.

Clearly, the Centre for Health Protection needs to pass on some basic facts about HIV infection to their colleagues on the frontline of healthcare delivery in Hong Kong. But if they really want to stop the upward trend of HIV infections over the longer term, they will need to step out of the health sector and engage with their government colleagues in the Education Bureau. It’s time they pointed out the human cost of continuing to shy away from implementing proper, evidence based sex and sexuality education in Hong Kong’s schools.

Jane Parry is a Hong Kong based public health and medical journalist and researcher.

I declare that I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and I have no relevant interests to declare.