It began as a casual discussion about HIV rises among a group of gay Melbourne friends. Now those five men are hoping to persuade 10,000 others to join a back-to-basics anti-HIV campaign.

The Rug Up for Winter campaign is seeking 10,000 Australian gay men to agree to use a condom for all casual sex between 1 July and 30 September.

Participants will also commit to having a sexual health check-up during the same period and get six friends to join the campaign.

Rug Up organisers -“ who have all worked in the HIV/AIDS sector -“ won endorsement and some funding from state and territory AIDS groups and national AIDS bodies, although the campaign is independent.

The Rug Up team is using a website and email updates to spread the word. Participants can sign up on the Rug Up website and send email and SMS invitations to friends.

We’re trying to create a national grassroots movement for people who are prepared to stand up and say that they’re concerned about HIV and that they’re prepared to take personal action, Rug Up co-organiser Paul Kidd told Sydney Star Observer.

We’re saying -˜make a public commitment and say for the next three months [you’re having 100 percent protected sex]’, he said.

Kidd said the campaign chose condom use over other safe-sex strategies because it was simple and effective.

They are running Rug Up over winter because they believe people go out less during this time, and could find it easier to commit to the plan.

Kidd said recent HIV rises prompted him and his friends to act. Victoria recently reported a 28 percent increase in new HIV notifications for 2005, reaching their highest number since 1991. Queensland HIV notifications rose by about 10 percent last year.

NSW Health is expected to announce a flattening of HIV notifications when it releases figures for 2005 later this month. It reported rises for 2002 and 2003 but a decrease last year.

We feel really strongly about -¦ increasing the level of dialogue and increasing the level of community engagement with HIV, Kidd said.

We don’t think that you can just leave the AIDS councils to have to deal with HIV unless there’s also a community action that’s happening behind it.

Kidd admitted 10,000 participants was a tough target, but was optimistic Rug Up would have a real impact on rates of HIV and other sexually transmissible infections. As the Star went to press about 200 people had signed up.

By the end of September, Rug Up organisers hope many more gay men will be talking about HIV and long-term safe-sex strategies.

AIDS groups have welcomed the grassroots plan.

We think it’s a really good thing when individual community members decide to get involved and show that doing HIV prevention work is not just the work of AIDS councils, ACON chief executive Stevie Clayton told the Star.

She dismissed suggestions Rug Up would interfere with AIDS councils’ work.

What it does is free up some resources that we can put in to more focused work.

If [Rug Up] was going to be the only thing and it was meant to be long-term, then you would think it was simplistic and wasn’t going to have a huge impact.

But the novelty of it is that it’s just for a three-month period. So it’s saying if large numbers of gay men can do this just for a defined period it can have a significant impact.

Dr Andrew Grulich from the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research told the Star the campaign could have a very significant effect on STI rates if it attracted enough men who had unprotected casual sex.

He said some HIV transmission did occur in relationships -“ an area not targeted by Rug Up -“ but most infections still resulted from casual sex.

It’s hard to know what impact Rug Up will have because I don’t think that this sort of grassroots community-based network for safe sex have been used for a long, long time, he said.

[But] I think any effort to try and reinvigorate safe sex among gay men is to be congratulated.

Geoff Honnor, executive officer of People Living With HIV/AIDS (NSW), also applauded the campaign.

It’s about gay men doing things with and for gay men, so I think that’s a really good thing, he said.

For more information visit the Rug Up website.

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