Glasgow & West Scotland

Legal highs 'may be linked' to rise in HIV in Glasgow area

drug needles Image copyright AP
Image caption Drug users are being urged not to share equipment

A drug misuse expert has warned that legal highs and lack of media attention may be contributing to an increase in HIV cases seen in the Glasgow area.

Health officials have warned people who take drugs about a near five-fold increase in HIV infections.

About 10 cases are linked to injecting in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area each year - that rose to 47 last year.

Professor Neil McKeganey said legal highs could be a factor in more frequent high-risk injecting behaviour.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC) is now warning drug users of the dangers of sharing needles and advising anyone who injects to get tested.

For the first time in almost 30 years, new diagnoses of HIV related to drug injecting was at a comparable level among gay and heterosexual men.

Investigations into the outbreak highlighted that some drug users were sharing needles, syringes, spoons and water when preparing and injecting their drugs.

It has also highlighted that there is low awareness of the risks of HIV from doing so.

'Vitally important'

Dr Catriona Milosevic, consultant in public health medicine at NHSGGC, said it was "vitally important" that people who inject drugs do not share or reuse equipment.

She said: "This includes when injecting with close friends or partners - you can't guess whether someone has HIV, and they may have no symptoms and be unaware themselves.

"Everyone involved needs to use a new set of sterile injecting equipment every single time, including needles, syringes, water, filters, and spoons, to protect themselves and others. These are all available from injecting equipment services."

Dr Milosevic said the goal was to get people drug free, but until that is achieved the focus had to be on harm reduction.

Image copyright SPL

Prof McKeganey, of the Centre for Substance Use Research, said any increase in HIV cases was worrying.

He said: "Many people have lost the focus of attention on HIV - there hasn't been much in the media and people tend to think it's not there.

"Actually what we are seeing is an increase in injecting risk behaviour, more sharing of needles than in the past.

"That might be to do with new psychoactive substances, or legal highs, we know that people tend to inject much more frequently and there is evidence that it's a higher risk behaviour."

'Diagnosed early'

Although there is no cure for HIV, there are now treatments which reduce the virus to what doctors describe as "undetectable" levels.

Dr Milosevic added: "Recent discussions have highlighted that those at risk are not aware of the huge advancements made in HIV treatment - there is still a perception that a diagnosis of HIV is a 'death sentence'.

"If people are diagnosed and start treatment early, which requires a test, they can have a similar life expectancy as the rest of the population."

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