National charity says Redbridge must take steps to tackle highest rate of late HIV diagnoses in London

Late diagnosis is when CD4 cell counts are less than 350 per cubic millimetre of blood within three

Late diagnosis is when CD4 cell counts are less than 350 per cubic millimetre of blood within three months of diagnosis. HIV destroys CD4 cells which co-ordinate the immune systems fight against infection. Patients with less than 200 cells per cubic millimetre are diagnosed with Aids. Source: Health Protection Agency - Credit: Archant

As the London borough with the highest rate of late diagnoses of HIV, steps must be taken in Redbridge to tackle the problem, according to a national charity.

From this month, the spending on and commissioning of public health services has passed from the defunct primary care trust to Redbridge Council.

As part of the changes in the structure of the NHS, the council will now have responsibility for sexual health diagnosis and prevention.

The local authority faces a challenge because 62 per cent of people living with HIV in the borough are diagnosed late, says the Health Protection Agency (HPA).

That usually means they have been infected for at least five years and can result in worse health outcomes, decreased life expectancy and a greater chance of passing the virus on.

The National Aids Trust (NAT) is calling on Redbridge to prioritise sexual health in its £10.3million public health budget.

Deborah Jack, the charity’s chief executive, said: “We need strong commitment to HIV from Redbridge’s councillors to ensure HIV prevention and testing continue to receive the necessary funding.”

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Government funding will be spent on HIV prevention and testing services by the council, which could be delivered by the local authority itself, the NHS or external firms or charities.

A HPA report from 2012 puts Redbridge ahead of the next worst affected borough for late diagnoses – Newham (59.6 per cent) – and well above the national average of 47 per cent.

Some 2.74 people in every 1,000 in Redbridge lives with HIV, according to the agency.

Urban areas are more likely to have higher prevalence rates, said NAT’s policy officer Phil Glanville, because they are home to more people from groups that are disproportionately affected, such as gay and bisexual men and Africans.

Mark Santos, director of Positive East, an HIV charity which provides a number of services in the borough, said: “In outer north-east London we have a challenge and Redbridge shares in that.

“HIV still has a stigma. There’s a fear of the unknown, people think ‘if I’ve taken a risk, I don’t want to think about it’.”

The number of late diagnoses is also “troublesome”, according to Mr Santos, because it means “you’re 10 times more likely to die within a year of testing”.

He added: “If you test early, you can live a long life.

“That’s the message we have to get out to people – to take control and to look after your health.

“If you’re sexually active, have a screening at least once a year with an HIV test.”

The council should be doing a “thorough assessment” of the needs of people in the borough, said Mr Glanville, to find out where HIV prevalence is highest, the demographics of those living with it and the barriers to testing.

He said: “From that they should be able to get a good idea of what services are needed in Redbridge.”

In response, Redbridge Council has said more than £3million of its ring-fenced public health budget will be spent on “improving sexual health and wellbeing”.

A spokesman said: “The Redbridge sexual health strategy focuses on key national aims of reducing HIV late diagnosis and of reducing the prevalence of HIV.”

He also pointed to work the local authority does with community-based organisations focused on at-risk populations.

He added: “A range of local sexual health services are available for residents including a mix of hospital-based and community sexual health clinics provided by Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust; chlamydia screening and initiatives in support of teenage pregnancy reduction.”