Scientists have declared that the war on AIDS is over in Australia – but HIV remains an ongoing battle.
Researchers from the Kirby and Peter Doherty institutes and the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) say AIDS cases have plummeted since the advent of antiretroviral medication in the mid-1990s, which stops HIV from progressing to AIDS – where the immune system is so badly damaged it cannot fight off infection.
At its peak in the early 1990s, about 1000 Australians died from AIDS each year.
Despite the progress, researchers are still quick to point out the end of AIDS is not the end of HIV.
About 1000 new cases of HIV are reported in Australia each year, and those within the sector worry that young people, who did not witness the horrors of the AIDS epidemic during the 80s and 90s, have become complacent.
Professor Sharon Lewin, director of the Peter Doherty Institute, said 10 per cent of new diagnoses of HIV in Australia were made of people with advanced HIV infection.
But researchers say it is now possible to also virtually eliminate HIV infections in Australia with appropriate investment in research, community-led health promotion and access to new HIV prevention technologies, such as PrEP.
AFAO chief executive officer Darryl O’Donnell says too many people are still being diagnosed with HIV, and often they are being diagnosed “much later than we’d like”.
“The virtual elimination of new HIV infections requires long-term investment in the organisations that have responded to the needs of HIV in our affected communities for 30 years,” he said.
President of the National Association of People Living with HIV Australia, Cipri Martinez, said a crucial element to ending HIV in Australia was to encourage the uptake of antiretroviral medicine so that HIV positive people can become undetectable and non-infectious to others.
“The most successful community responses will include early combination prevention, testing and treating strategies,” he said.
“Getting to zero new HIV infections means redoubling our efforts with vulnerable communities including, women, non-community attached gay men and people from non-English speaking backgrounds.
“These people are most likely to be diagnosed and treated late and can sometimes develop AIDS-defining conditions. Those few individuals can be confident that in most cases their symptoms can be quickly and easily addressed with effective treatments.
“The only way we can reduce the number of HIV infections to zero by 2020 in our region is by focusing intense advocacy and resources on those people most at risk of new HIV infections, especially young gay men and people who inject drugs,” Mr Martinez said.
Innovative new treatments such as PrEP, taken daily, provide almost complete protection from HIV infection. PrEP has been approved for use in Australia and is being made available in trials being administered by the Kirby Institute in Sydney, the Alfred Hospital and Burnet Institute in Melbourne and the Queensland AIDS Council in Brisbane.
PrEP is currently being considered for funding under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).