Guest blog by Dr Diarmuid Nugent, Consultant Physician, 56 Dean Street
It has been over six weeks since the UK went into lockdown to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and the fabric of our everyday life changed beyond recognition almost overnight.
Like many other sectors, we in sexual health have had to adapt rapidly to the ‘new normal’. From the outset of the pandemic there has been no question that provision of sexual health and HIV services is vital and must continue, both for the health and well-being of those who need them, and to avoid undue pressure on other medical services like A&E and GP surgeries. Our challenge at 56 Dean Street has been to do all we can to maintain the excellent standards in the care that we provide while keeping our patients safe and, where possible, at home.
A new way of working
For our sexual health services, we asked our patients to phone ahead first before attending in person. We find that a remote consultation with an experienced sexual health clinician means that many concerns can be managed with advice, support, sending out medication or prescriptions by post where needed and referring for self-testing for STIs.
We’re lucky in that there is already established service for home STI testing in London, managed by Sexual Health London (SHL). Typically this has been for people with no symptoms, but with the right support some individuals with low-risk symptoms can be directed to home testing alongside the expert advice and treatment they receive from us.
Those with urgent symptoms who need to be assessed or to receive treatment in person still come in but with fewer patients needing to attend, we have the space to maintain effective social distancing measures.
Patients living with HIV
For our patients living with HIV, many have understandably been really anxious about what the COVID pandemic means for them. The advice from the British HIV Association (BHIVA) has been very clear and reassuring that there is no evidence that those living with well controlled HIV are at any greater risk of either getting COVID-19 or becoming unwell if they do become infected.
That said, those with a low CD4 count, who are not on treatment or have recently had an infection associated with HIV will be at greater risk of infections in general and so may be at increased risk. We’re providing extra support to these people; however this is a small proportion of our patients and a minority of people living with HIV in the UK.
For the majority, the priority has been to maintain an uninterrupted supply of antiretroviral medication. To do that we reached out to all our patients who were due to come in, and then set up a telephone service where patients can contact us when approaching their last month of medication. If the most recent blood tests were stable and there are no urgent health concerns we prescribe and supply six months of antiretroviral medication without the need for additional blood tests or a face-to-face review. But for the few that do need to see us, the fact that most patients have been reviewed virtually means we have the capacity to see those who do need to come in quickly and safely.
PrEP and lockdown
At Dean Street we estimate that we support over 10,000 PrEP users either through the IMPACT study, purchased directly through our PrEPshop and self-sourced on-line. For many people on PrEP, lockdown means they are not sexually active and therefore not at risk of HIV.
Through our social media channels we promoted video advice about how PrEP can be started and stopped safely but we have continued to provide PrEP to those who remain at risk with telephone support, home HIV testing and posting out medication when it’s still needed.
Trends in STI transmission and behaviour
As a busy clinical service we tend to see trends in STI transmission and behavior quite quickly here at Dean Street. What was clear in the first week or two of lockdown was that our rates of STI diagnoses had dropped dramatically – we went from 350 cases of gonorrhoea each week to around 50.
When it’s in the penis, gonorrhoea has a short time lag before symptoms show so most cases urethral gonorrhoea will have been picked up quite recently. So when gonorrhoea cases fall, that may indicate that people have been having less sex recently. Of course, it may also be that people are testing less during lockdown, in particular as gonorrhoea in the throat and rectum often shows no symptoms, so it might be that it’s there but we are just not finding it.
However our presentations for PEP, emergency medication after a potential exposure to HIV after condomless sex, have also dropped dramatically, from around 50 cases per week to less than 10. We think PEP is a clear indicator of sexual behavior, and as most of our PEP and gonorrhoea presentations are in gay and bi men, we think this means that gay and bi men are having much less sex during lockdown.
It might seem like a simple observation, but we felt it presented us with a fantastic opportunity. When people have acquired HIV very recently, within the last four weeks, it may be too early to show up on even the best tests and so if someone with recent HIV tests negative they can continue to pass on the infection unknowingly. Also, those who have acquired HIV recently will often be highly infectious to their sexual partners, again without realising.
Under normal circumstances, this kind of HIV transmission is very difficult to eliminate. But our lockdown data suggests that the number of people with recent HIV is greatly reduced at the moment, so there’s much less chance of missing an infection on the tests and fewer people who are highly infectious.
Time to Test
We created our #TimeToTest campaign based on the above trends. If as many gay and bi men can test as possible now, before the end of lockdown, we have a real chance to break the chain of new HIV infections that result from undiagnosed or recent infections. We could also make a similar impact on other STIs like gonorrhoea and syphilis.
Our Test Now Stop HIV site aims to encourage people to take a test and to access home testing kits. As local authorities across the UK differ in how they offer HIV and STI testing for their residents, we have also tried to bring this information into one place to make it easier for people to find out how they can access HIV testing not matter where they live.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for so many, we feel that a drop in new HIV infections could be one unexpected silver lining on a very dark cloud. We may not get a similar opportunity again which is why we’re encouraging everyone to take a test.