The number of gay men with HIV has reached a record high, with one in 20 men who have sex with men (MSM) living with the disease.

The figures, from the Health Protection Agency (HPA), were released in conjunction with national HIV testing week, which runs until 30 November.

According to the findings, the number of new diagnoses among MSM reached an all-time high of 3,010 in 2011.

London has most sufferers per head of population - one in 12 MSM have HIV in the capital. That equals 47 per 1,000.

The HPA also warns that the number of people living with HIV could be significantly higher than the 96,000 it can confirm, as a quarter of people with the disease are unaware of their status.

Findings showed that the black African community is at greater risk, with 37 per 1,000 living with the disease. Overall, HIV prevalence in the UK is 1.5 per 1,000.

The research also found that 2,990 heterosexual men and women were diagnosed with the disease last year.

Nick Partridge, chief executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, said: "Thirty years on from the start of the epidemic, public understanding of HIV has dropped to a worrying level. As a result, we are starting to see a significant increase in the number of heterosexuals acquiring the virus in the UK.

"It is important that everyone, no matter their age or background, understands that nobody is immune from infection. We all have a responsibility to get our understanding of the virus up to a basic level, and know how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe."

HIV affects the immune system and central nervous system, making those living with the virus more susceptible to other illnesses.

Dr Valerie Delpech, HPA head of HIV surveillance, said: "These figures are a reminder of how vital safe sex programmes remain. Promoting HIV testing and condom use is crucial to tackling the high rates of transmission, late diagnosis and undiagnosed HIV still seen in the UK.

"The good news is that with the excellent services and treatments available nowadays, if diagnosed and treated early someone with HIV can look forward to a normal lifespan, as well as protecting their sexual partners from infection.

"That's why it is vitally important that anyone who has been at risk gets an HIV test, and that those in higher risk groups get screened regularly."

Since 1996, thanks largely to Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy, the life expectancy of people living with HIV in the UK has increased by 15 years. People with the disease can now expect to live into their 60s.

In countries where HIV treatments are available, including the UK, AIDS is no longer an inevitable stage of the disease.

Partridge continued: "HIV is an entirely preventable condition, yet each year we see thousands more people across the UK receive this life-changing diagnosis.

"While there is still no cure and no vaccine, that doesn't mean we need to accept its continuing march. Reducing undiagnosed HIV by encouraging those in high-risk groups to test more regularly is one way we can put the brakes on the spread of infection.

"A simple HIV test, offered free at clinics and testing services all over the country, might add over 40 years to the life of someone with HIV, diagnosed in good time."

Andy Bell
Andy Bell from Erasure publicly announced he had HIV in 2004 (Reuters)
Kids
The controversial 1996 Larry Clark film Kids showed the transmission of HIV among teenagers in New York in the 1990s (Shining Excalibur Films)