07 July 2013
By Gemma Aldridge
Experts have warned about a new craze in which men are secretly seeking and spreading HIV.
The reckless practice, known as bug chasing, started in the US as a bizarre means of getting a sexual high from risk-taking.
Now, according to one man who willingly caught the virus, hundreds of men in the UK are introducing themselves on online forums, Facebook groups and Twitter.
Many then meet up and try to transmit the potentially life-threatening virus, which attacks the immune system weakening the body’s ability to fight disease.
Some bug-chasers actually claim the virus gives them a better quality of life because of the medication they subsequently have to take.
Nick, 30, an admin worker from the Midlands, said: “I feel fit as a fiddle. I feel full of energy and healthier as a result of being on my medication.
“I get my liver function tests every three months, my cholesterol tested regularly and I get loads of general health checks so if there are any underlying conditions I know straight away. Even better, I get it all on the NHS.”
Last year, 73,659 people in the UK were treated for HIV – 43 per cent of them gay or bisexual men – a rise of 58 per cent over the last 10 years.
In 2012, the NHS spent £840million on HIV treatment, an average £10,000 per patient.
Simon Prytherch, of the Elton John Aids Foundation, said: “This practice is very scary and highly irresponsible.
"What we see increasingly are cases of treatment failure and then rapid decline in health.”
Bug chasing is so new to the UK it is impossible to say how many men are involved.
In the US, where the phenomenon was first identified in 1999, research is further advanced.
An investigation by Rolling Stone magazine in 2003 claimed a quarter of all new HIV transmissions in the US could be attributed to bug chasing.
No such studies have been done in the UK but one Facebook group dedicated to the practice has been “liked” by 1,172 people.
A US website which promotes meetings of bug-chasers and gift-givers – those who are already HIV positive – has more than 5,000 members.
Nick, who contracted HIV in 2011, joined the site two years ago.
He claims he has had unprotected sex with more than 1,000 men, including many he knew were HIV positive, in his quest for the virus.
When Nick was first diagnosed, he wrote on Facebook: “Tested positive on 21st September and totally loving it! Wanna share with any chasers, CD4 is 971, VL 100,000 – nice and toxic!”
CD4 refers to his white blood cell count while VL is the “viral load”, which indicates how likely a carrier is to pass the virus on. VL 100,000 is extremely high.
“I don’t regret the sex I had or becoming HIV. The only downside of contracting the virus is it took some of the excitement away.”
Since his diagnosis, Nick claims to have had unprotected sex with 20 men.
“I have faced a lot of vitriol on my blog,” he said. “But I just think that as it’s between two consenting adults, it’s no one else’s business.
“If you brought me a person I had infected and sat them in front of me I would probably feel some guilt over it if they hadn’t been educated about the risks. But all the people I have had sex with have made educated decisions.”
Silvia Petretti, of HIV charity Positively UK, has been living with the virus for 16 years.
She said: “It may not be a death sentence any more but living with HIV is not a walk in the park either.
"It makes me very sad and very worried that people are seeking to contract it.
"Bug chasing needs to be addressed, both by the NHS and the education system, so that people are aware of the risks from a young age and receive the help they need if they are feeling compelled to act this way.”
The Terence Higgins Trust said: “Although it is a tiny minority taking part, we recommend that gay and bisexual men protect themselves against HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections by using condoms.”
Nick is not his real name.