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Stable HIV rates but surge in STDs among gay men in France, report finds

Damien Meyer, AFP | People walk by a HIV/AIDS prevention campaign poster in the western French city of Rennes on November 22, 2016.

In preparation for World AIDS Day on December 1, the France Public Health agency issued its annual report on HIV and sexually transmitted disease (STD) Tuesday, which found that HIV rates remain stubbornly high among gay men while STDs are surging.

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Infection rates for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, have held troublingly steady since 2013 among gay men, who accounted for 43 percent of the 6,000 new cases reported in France in 2015. But the report also found that incidents of the disease were declining among heterosexual men and women, prompting authorities to try to address this disparity.

Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that STD infections among gay men have soared over the past two years, with a 100 percent increase in new gonorrhea cases, a 56 percent spike in syphilis and a 47 percent jump in rectal chlamydia.

The public health report attributed the lack of a decline in HIV cases and the sharp rise in STDs to high-risk sexual behaviour, criticising medical professionals for failing to prescribe regular tests. The report was published just weeks after the France Public Health agency – with the support of the health ministry – began targeting gay men with a campaign aimed at stopping the spread of infection.

“The lack of decline in new HIV positive cases among [gay men] … the increase of STD infections and the augmentation of risky behavior constitute a strong set of indicators that prevention must be pursued among this population using all available tools,” the report said. “That is the major challenge of the current campaign targeting men who have sex with men.”

The campaign, called “Sexosafe”, has sought to raise awareness about the risk of HIV and STD infection by offering information on prevention as well as when and how to get tested. Colourful posters advocating safe sex – featuring men cuddling or about to kiss – have been hung in cities and towns across the country, much to the outrage of some.

The mayors of the northern Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois and the western city of Angers, both of the conservative Les Républicains (formerly the UMP) party, have flat-out refused to display the images, describing them as “deliberately shocking” and “against good manners and morality”. The move prompted Health Minister Marisol Touraine to threaten legal action against the officials for “censorship”.

In other areas angry residents have vandalised the posters by painting over the taglines – which read, for example, “With a lover/a friend/a stranger. The situations vary, so do the modes of protection.”

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