It has been 26 years since Australians were first shocked into vigilance about HIV and Aids by the infamous “grim reaper” ad, but it appears the message is no longer getting through.
A report published on Monday reveals that new cases of HIV last year rose at their fastest rate in 20 years, with a dramatic increase among young men and Indigenous people. Sufferers are also contracting the virus at a younger age.
The figures come from New South Wales’ Kirby Institute annual surveillance report of HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections in Australia, along with an accompanying report on infections among the Indigenous population.
Despite a belief that Australia was beginning to get the disease under control, there has been a steady rise in new cases since 1999, and a sharp increase recently, said Kirby Institute program director, associate professor David Wilson.
“HIV rates have increased, and they’ve increased quite substantially,” he said. In 2012, there was a 10 per cent rise in the number of new cases, while last year saw 1,253 new cases, the biggest rise in a single year for two decades.
In NSW, it was 24% per cent and there were also rises in Queensland and Western Australia, but a slight decline in Victoria and South Australia.
Among all Australians the virus is still primarily transmitted sexually between men (around two-thirds of cases). Just under 60 per cent of new cases attributed to heterosexual contact were among people born in Africa or Asia, or whose sexual partners were born in these regions. There has been a sharp increase in the numbers of young people contracting the virus, says Mr. Wilson. Among those aged 15-19 there was a 36 per cent jump on the previous year and a 22 per cent rise in the 20-24 age group.
The numbers have been rising for the past four or five years he says. “Younger people don’t seem to have the messaging that the older people had in the 80s and 90s.” Sexual practices could be behind the increased number of new cases, suggests professor John de Wit, director of the University of New South Wales’ centre for social research in health.
Unprotected sex with casual partners is gradually increasing among the gay community and condom use replaced by “sexual risk-reduction strategies”, says Mr. Wit. He says there is an increase in unprotected homosexual sex among men under the age of 25.
Bill Whittaker, of the national association of people with HIV Australia (Napwha), believes Australia has reached “one of the critical moments in 30 years of AIDA” and warns that not enough is being done to combat the disease.
“We have had better news on the scientific front in that we’ve had considerable advances in scientific knowledge about HIV infection and treatment,” he said. Despite this, he says only NSW has released an HIV strategy reflecting the commitment as well as scientific advances. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013