Call for Aussies to catch up on HIV checks as testing numbers plunge


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Experts have urged all Australians at risk of HIV to get caught up on their testing and prophylactic treatment after a dramatic drop in HIV tests due to the pandemic.

This Wednesday (December 1) is World AIDS Day, which this year commemorates 40 years of HIV.

Speaking ahead of World AIDS Day, advocacy group Living Positive Victoria has stressed early detection and treatment prevents HIV transmission.

But they’ve released data showing pathology tests to diagnose HIV have dropped dramatically as a result of the pandemic.

Comparing Medicare Benefits Schedule data for the third quarter of 2019 with data from July to September 2021, the numbers show 33 per cent fewer HIV tests performed by pathology labs during this period.

The data shows Victoria was the worst hit. HIV tests dropped 40 per cent in the third quarter of 2020, and 30 per cent in 2021, compared to pre-COVID 2019.

Restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have impacted the spread of other viruses.

However the group is concerned about the thousands of Australia with HIV who are unaware of their status.

In 2019, an estimated 29,045 people were living with HIV in Australia. However, an estimated 3,020 people are unaware they were HIV positive.

40th anniversary of first HIV diagnosis in 1981

Living Positive Victoria CEO Richard Keane said this year marks the 40th anniversary of the first HIV diagnosis in 1981.

“Australia saw cases rapidly increase during the 1980s and 90s, with a disproportionate impact of diagnosis among men who have sex with men,” he said.

“These times were devastating and almost unimaginable in the context of 2021.”

Keane said gender diverse individuals, women, and heterosexual men were also impacted in smaller numbers.

Now, he said, the road ahead towards eliminating HIV transmission “echoes the actions of all AIDS warriors and honours the more than 8,000 Australians lost to AIDS.”

Keane said they leave “a legacy of community leadership and empowerment that demands equity for all people living with and affected by HIV today and into the future.”

U=U means Undetectable equals Untransmissible

Recently, the HIV prevention method known as U=U (Undetectable equals Untransmissible) refers to an HIV positive person taking antiretroviral therapy as prescribed.

If they do so, they can achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load.

This means they are no longer able to sexually transmit the virus to an HIV-negative partner.

But to achieve this and stop transmission, a person must first be aware of their HIV status.

Dr Sarah Garner is Medical Microbiologist at Dorevitch Pathology and a practising infectious disease physician.

She said, “With HIV, early diagnosis is key as it helps prevent a lot of complications. Now treatment can be as simple as a tablet a day.”

However Dr Garner said the pandemic has made it all too easy to forget about day-to-day health needs.

“This is why it’s so important now to get your health checked, including having an HIV test, which is a quick and easy thing to do next time you see your GP,” she said.

This week, it was announced that HIV self-testing kits allowing testing at home would go on sale in Australian pharmacies over the coming months.

PrEP medication for HIV prevention

Since April 2018, pre-exposure prophylaxis therapy, or PrEP, has been available through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

When a person is exposed to HIV, PrEP taken as prescribed stops the virus from entering their cells and replicating.

According to Kirby Institute data, as of March 2019, 62,200 Australians were eligible for PrEP.

And an estimated 23,020 people were accessing the medication.

However lockdowns and behavioural changes as a result of the pandemic disrupted uptake of PrEP.

Kirby Institute data showed during COVID-19 restrictions in 2020, 42% of gay and bisexual men stopped using PrEP.

Experts later urged them to recommence the medication when they resumed sexual activity to protect themselves against HIV.

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