HIV infections up by 4% in Belgium last year

HIV infections up by 4% in Belgium last year
Mural against HIV-Aids, in Antwerp. Artist Larsen Bervoets painted the fresco for Sensoa. Credit: Belga / Thierry Roge

The number of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) diagnoses in Belgium increased by 4% by 2021, according to the health institute Sciensano. Last year, 781 people were diagnosed with the virus.

A significant drop of 21% was observed in 2020 compared to 2019, which is strongly linked to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown measures imposed which restricted human contact.

Despite this year's increase, the overall trend over the last decade remains downward, Sciensano reported. The number of new HIV diagnoses increased among people of Belgian nationality, regardless of sexual orientation, while among non-Belgians there was a decrease or stabilisation in the number of HIV diagnoses.

One in five still able to transmit HIV

"It appears that HIV transmission among Belgian men who have sex with men increased again in 2021 despite the rising use of preventive HIV treatment (PrEP). This is suggested by the rising number of acute HIV infections in 2021, which again reached the same number as in 2019," the report read.

In 2021, an estimated 19,177 people were living with HIV in Belgium. Of these, 94% were diagnosed, of those, 89% received antiretroviral treatment, and of these, 97% had a suppressed viral load (having less than 200 copies of HIV per millilitre of blood thanks to HIV medication).

"This means that 81% of all persons living with HIV in our country had a suppressed viral load. Belgium is thus well on its way to the UNAIDS "95-95-95" targets for 2025. Nevertheless, about one in five people living with HIV in Belgium has an unsuppressed viral load, which means the virus can still be transmitted. This is mainly due to delayed diagnosis or interruption of HIV care," the report said.

Bringing it under control

The Federal Government is providing €1 million extra budget for an HIV plan to bring the HIV epidemic in Belgium under control. "Belgium really needs to step up a gear," Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said in a response to the research by the health institute.

The budget is part of an HIV plan designed to meet the United Nations' goal of ending the HIV epidemic by 2030, Vandenbroucke said. Among other things, the money will serve to offer preventive HIV treatment to more vulnerable people.

The Inter-Ministerial Conference (IMC) Public Health approved the national HIV plan in October after consultation with relevant actors and HIV patients. The plan embraces preventive measures, but also systematically contacts patients who do not show up for their follow-up.

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In addition, PrEP should become more easily accessible to people at high risk of HIV infection and a legal framework for screening for HIV and STIs by non-medical care providers is being worked on.

According to Vandenbroucke, Belgium "really needs to step up a gear when it comes to reducing the number of new HIV infections and diagnosing infected people quickly", as the latter "enables a quick start of HIV treatment."

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