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Australia sees spike in HIV infection rate

Australia has joined others around the world in seeking to significantly cut HIV infection rates. AAP

Australia has seen a notable rise in HIV infections over the last 12 months, say researchers at the University of New South Wales.

The 2012 HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections in Australia Annual Surveillance Report found there was an increase of almost 100 cases in the past year, a rise of 8%, after cases of infection had been stable over the previous four years.

The annual report is produced by UNSW’s Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society, and uses data collected from health departments, sexual health organisations, hospitals and research centres to deliver useful data on the nation’s sexual health.

“We thought we had plateaued but unfortunately we have seen a real rise in new (HIV) cases,” said David Wilson, head of the Surveillance and Evaluation Program for Public Health at UNSW.

Victoria saw the biggest increase in new cases, and now has the highest rate of HIV infection in the country.

“The majority of cases occur in the non-indigenous population, and 75% of cases occur among men who have sex with men,” Professor Wilson said.

Over the past decade the proportion of men reporting sexual risk had gone up and down, but there had been a slow and gradual increasing trend, said John de Wit, director of the National Centre in HIV Social Research.

“This suggests new infections might be a result of ongoing sexual risk taking,” Professor de Wit said.

Around 25,000 people are estimated to be living with HIV in Australia, however researchers believe 20-30% of people with HIV do not know they have it.

Australia has committed to a range of targets including reducing the sexual transmission of HIV by 50% by 2015, after signing the United Nations 2011 Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS.

“The world’s eyes will be upon us and we need to show our leadership in terms of reducing HIV transmission and bringing treatment to those who need it,” said Edwina Wright, infectious diseases physician and clinical researcher at the Alfred Hospital and the Burnet Institute.

Dr Wright, along with a group of organisations representing research institutes, health care workers, sex workers and injecting drug users today launched the “Melbourne Declaration” - a four-step plan to curb HIV in Australia.

The declaration includes a number of requests including TGA licensing of rapid testing, and in some cases home testing; free treatment for people with HIV that are not eligible for Medicare cover; drug law reform; and the decriminalisation of sex work.

The declaration also calls for TGA licensing and PBS funding of antiretroviral drugs as a preventative measure for those at high risk of HIV infection.

“We want to be able to offer people in Australia access to taking antiretroviral medications that might prevent them from acquiring HIV if they are at risk,” Professor Wright said.

Professor de Wit said research showed some men are quite sceptical of the preventative benefits of HIV treatment.

However Professor Wright said studies had shown daily use of an anitretroviral medication could significantly reduce the risk of transmitting HIV from somewhere between 45% and 75%.

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