Calls for urgent action to curb rise in HIV
Australia recorded its largest single year increase in new diagnoses of HIV infection in 2012, prompting experts to reiterate their call for urgent action to stop the virus’ spread.
Figures to be released this week at 2013 Australasian HIV&AIDS Conference in Darwin show the number of HIV infection diagnoses increased by 10 per cent in 2012 with 1253 new cases.
New South Wales recorded the highest increase in new HIV diagnoses, rising from 5.4 per 100,000 population in 2011 to 6.2 in 2012, according to the Annual Surveillance Report into HIV and STIs by the UNSW’s Kirby Institute.
The number of diagnoses of newly acquired infection – evidence of HIV in the last twelve months – has also increased from around 26 per cent in 2007 to 32 per cent in 2012.
In New South Wales, the rate increased from 2.3 per cent in 2011 to 2.5 per cent in 2012.
Gonorrhoea levels have also increased substantially to 13,649 cases in 2012 and syphilis rates are close to the highest levels recorded in Australia, with 1,534 diagnoses in 2012. Most cases are among men who have sex with men.
While improved access to testing may account for some of the increases in new HIV diagnoses, Associate Professor David Wilson of the Kirby Institute said “better testing simply cannot explain the magnitude of these rising rates”.
One of the key drivers of HIV transmission, unprotected anal intercourse with casual partners, is on the increase according to annual reports monitoring behavioural trends.
Findings indicate close to 40 per cent of gay men with casual partners have had unprotected anal intercourse in the last six months - a rise from 31.6 per cent in 2003 to 38.3 per cent in 2012 - with a significant increase among gay men under 25 years.
Professor John de Wit, director of UNSW's Centre for Social Research, which publishes the Annual Reports in Trends in Behaviours, said the rise in unprotected sex with casual partners has been gradually increasing over the last ten years.
"We’re now at the highest level ever recorded in our surveys of gay and bisexual men,” John de Wit said.
He added the rise in unprotected sex in younger men reflects findings that they are less likely to have been exposed to HIV prevention campaigns.
By the end of 2012, a total of 34,029 cases of HIV infection had been diagnosed in Australia since the epidemic began, with an estimated 28,600 to 34,300 people living with HIV.
It is estimated that there may be up to 20 per cent of people with HIV whose infection remains undiagnosed, Wilson said.
“We need to focus significant efforts on getting people diagnosed and initiating antiretroviral therapy in order to improve their health and reduce the risk of transmission in the community.”
The Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, the peak body representing AIDS councils in all states and territories, said the figures reinforced the need for a multi-pronged strategy that encourages greater condom use, testing and the expanded roll out of medication that drive down the chance of infection.
"Prevention remains the critical factor. The best way of doing that is through condom use, but it’s also crucial that we expand access to tools like rapid tests, that allow people to know their HIV status within 30 minutes,” said AFAO Executive Director Rob Lake.
“We’d also like to see a renewed sense of urgency in providing greater access to drugs such as Pre Exposure Prophylaxis, which dramatically reduce the chance of HIV infection.
“Australia led the world in containing the spread of HIV in the early and mid 1980s, but clearly a degree of complacency has begun to take root.
“It’s time we resumed the mantle of leadership on HIV.
Lake said new campaigns promoting condom use already in place in NSW and Victoria will shortly be rolling out nationally.
“The whole community needs to work together on this issue. It’s entirely possible that we can end HIV in the foreseeable future.”