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By Staff Reporter

A SHOCK report by the British government has revealed that half of new HIV cases reported in Britain came from Zimbabwean immigrants, New can reveal today

The Health Protection Agency which monitors communicable diseases, warned that up to half of new cases diagnosed in 2002 came from Zimbabwe, with women being diagnosed at twice the rate of men.

Such is the concern among authorities the AIDS crisis facing Britain's African community is to be tackled by UK ministers amid fears that cultural taboos are hampering the battle against infection.

The number of Zimbabwean immigrants arriving in the UK has increased in the past three years as people flee repression from President Mugabe’s regime. Official figures show that there are between 28 000 to 30 000 Zimbabweans living in the United Kingdom. At least 10 000 of those are in London and the rest are scattered across England, Wales and Scotland.

A quarter of cases of HIV in England and Wales are now among people of African origin, though they form less than 1 per cent of the population.
And doctors are alarmed not just at the rise in immigrant cases, but at the spread of the virus through Britain's settled black community.

Trevor Phillips, chair of race watchdog the Commission for Racial Equality, told The Observer newspaper it was time to confront some uncomfortable truths, including what he called 'the nonsense and fears' of some African men.

‘There are some people within the African community who are in denial, because African men say "it's a gay thing, African men aren't gay, ergo it can't be anything to do with us”,’ he said.

'We will never break through that until we start to discuss it.'

Until now many doctors and politicians have fought shy of highlighting the issue, fearing it could be twisted for racist propaganda purposes. But Melanie Johnson, the Public Health Minister, will meet experts this week to discuss ways of combating the crisis. The Government is overhauling its HIV strategy: options include new advertising messages, and education programmes aimed at the black community.

In a briefing to HIV experts this month, the Health Protection Agency warned that up to half of new cases diagnosed in 2002 came from just one country, Zimbabwe. But Africans are also 'at risk of acquiring HIV infection sexually in the UK.

HIV rates are less alarming among Afro-Caribbeans, but still disproportionately high, particularly in south London.

Official figures show a 20 per cent in new HIV diagnoses in the year to 2003, with around 4,300 new cases transmitted heterosexually - most acquired in Africa and mainly in Zimbabwe. African women are being diagnosed at twice the rate of African men, but this could be because antenatal testing is now routine. The rate of infected pregnant women virtually doubled in inner London between 1993 and 2002, says the HPA, despite staying almost unchanged elsewhere in England.

Phillips said there was no point in sweeping such facts under the carpet simply for fear of encouraging the anti-immigration lobby.

Johnson will hold talks with Max Sesay, chief executive of the African Health Policy Network. Some London boroughs are already using community and religious leaders to push safe sex messages. Experts say there is evidence that condom use is less widespread among black Africans.

The Government is planning measures to combat imported infection, including forcing visa applicants from some countries to take an HIV test there. But Phillips said the public health crisis must be separated from controversy over 'health tourism'.

The London Assembly report, which took evidence from Sesay among others, warned that on current trends there could be 50,000 HIV patients needing treatment in London alone in less than five years - each costing up to £181,000.

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