KEY advocacy groups have hit back at claims that AIDS is no longer a public health issue in Australia.

Experts declared over the weekend that while HIV was still an issue in Australia, AIDS had been brought under control thanks to community advocacy, government efforts and advances in antiretroviral treatments.

However, advocates for sex workers and injecting have joined forces to declare while significant achievements have been made in HIV, the benefits of this have not been experienced by all people affected by the virus in the same way.

“It is fantastic that gay men have been able to make so much progress in the fight against AIDS – including better access to innovative prevention, treatment, and care- however, other HIV key affected communities in Australia still have a fair way to go,” said Dr Angella Duvnjak, CEO of Australian Injecting & Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL), the national peak body representing people who use drugs.

“In some countries, gay men, sex workers and people who inject drugs are seen as the problem, but in Australia, we have proven that working with these communities is essential to any effective solution.”

Dr Duvnjak said some of the achievements of Australia’s HIV response could be attributed to the implementation of harm reduction initiatives such as needle/syringe programs and the availability of opioid substitution therapy and the resourcing of peer-based drug user organisations.

Jules Kim, CEO of Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association, said similar strategies were adopted for sex workers.

“Effective sex worker led community organising and peer education programs providing safer sex supplies, outreach, advocacy and support have been central to the continued low rates of HIV among sex workers, including migrant sex workers, in Australia. However this is not the case globally where rates of HIV remain high for sex workers and people who inject drugs,” she said.

“The successes in Australia could very easily be lost if we do not maintain the effective advocacy and prevention by and for sex workers and for people who inject drugs. Collectively we need to maintain our focus and step up the pace.”

Dr Duvnjak said: “For our communities, it’s hard to declare AIDS as being over when, despite the demonstrated effectiveness of our work, AIVL, Scarlet Alliance and our member organisations often still have to fight to ensure the continuation of these initiatives”.

“AIDS was, and is still, more than just a health issue. While medical advancement in HIV plays a significant part in eliminating the virus, it is undeniable that social justice and human rights issues are just as important.

“Let’s not forget how much decriminalisation and anti-discrimination protections have contributed toward the ability for gay men to fight HIV,” Duvnjak said.

“For people who inject drugs and sex workers, who are still fighting for these legal protections in most states and territories, the struggle is far from resolved.

“It’s timely in the lead up to the International AIDS conference in Durban to remember one of the key themes of the previous conference here in Melbourne: Nobody Left Behind.”

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