VICTORIA has seen the highest number of new HIV diagnoses in a single year since the height of the epidemic in the early 1990s, with experts attributing the jump to increased testing.

According to new figures produced by the Burnet Institute and released by the state’s Department of Health on Friday, 303 people were diagnosed with HIV in Victoria last year, a 16 per cent increase on the 261 new diagnoses in 2012.

Over two thirds of new diagnoses were among men who have sex with men, while women made up around 11 per cent of cases. Around one third of new diagnoses were in the 30–39 age group, and with 81 new diagnoses 20–29 was the second-most common age group represented.

A spokesperson for Victorian Health Minister David Davis told the Star Observer the increase in HIV notifications may be a result of increased testing, both among people being tested for the first time and people being tested at higher frequencies.

“The availability of rapid HIV testing at both the free community based peer service Pronto! and privately through high case load clinics and general practitioners may also be a positive factor contributing to the HIV increases being reported in men who have sex with men,” the spokesperson said.

A Department of Health spokesperson told the Star Observer it was “a good thing” if the increase in HIV notifications was a result of increased testing.

Both the department and the minister pointed to data coming out of the Pronto! rapid testing clinic, which opened last August in Fitzroy, indicating 14 per cent of men accessing the service had never been tested for HIV.

Associate Professor Mark Stoove from the Burnet Institute, which produced the report, said it was important to look at the long term data, and while the 2013 annual increase was significant, the increase in rates over time was more gradual. He linked this increase to overall upward trends on HIV testing among men who have sex with men.

“(The increase) is not just related to the introduction of rapid testing. What we’ve seen over the past decade or so is a fairly consistent increase over time in the frequency with which people test for HIV,” Stoove told the Star Observer.

“The conclusion in relation to testing pushing numbers up is probably based on in part the introduction of rapid testing, but probably more so on what we’ve seen in trends in the gay community over time, which is pleasing to see.”

Stoove said the impact of rapid testing would not become clear until longer-term statistics emerged on how services like Pronto! were being used.

He also stressed the importance of continuing to push a message around reducing sexual behaviour with higher risk of HIV transmission, as well as encouraging increased testing.

The Victorian AIDS Council said the increase was “concerning”, but believed increased testing was helping to paint a more accurate picture of HIV rates in Victoria, and may indicate a decrease in rates of undiagnosed HIV.

“Of course any increase in notifications in concerning, but if these results are indicative of a reduction in underlying, undiagnosed HIV in the community, any result that indicates a decrease in that rate is welcome,” VAC president Greg Carter said.

The results of this year’s annual Melbourne Gay Periodic Survey indicated an overall increase in gay men testing for HIV.

VAC chief executive Simon Ruth called the rise in HIV notifications an “inevitable” result of increased testing, and said the community should be ready for those notifications to increase even further if testing continues to become more prevalent.

“At this point in the epidemic, with more tools than we have ever had before to stem the tide of continued infections, it is vital that we continue to promote testing, appropriate treatment and the importance of consistent safe sex behaviour,” Ruth said.

He stressed the point that the 303 people diagnosed with HIV in 2013 will have been referred on to appropriate treatment and care.

Living Positive Victoria also highlighted the importance of the data to people living with HIV, and pointed to an apparent increase in the diversity of those people. While men who have sex with men account for around 90 per cent of Victorians living with HIV, one in five people diagnosed in 2013 fell outside that group.

“An increase in the number of people diagnosed with HIV in Victoria underlines the importance of expanding services to people living with the virus,” Living Positive Victoria’s executive officer Brent Allan said.

 

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