New figures released this week show a further rise in NSW HIV infections and health groups warn it will get worse unless something is done.

I hesitate to say -˜alarm’ but it’s really serious and we need to be focusing on it and we need to see it as not just something that ACON works on, but something the whole community has to come together on and tackle again, like we did at the beginning of the epidemic, ACON CEO Stevie Clayton told Sydney Star Observer. It’s a community problem.

The latest data released by NSW Health for the period January to June 2003 showed 224 people tested HIV-positive in the first six months of 2003. This represents an 18 percent rise on the figures for the same period in 2001 and a 38 percent rise over two years.

We think that’s a really major increase, NSW Health’s Lisa Ryan told the Star. We also know that newly acquired HIV infections account for a greater proportion of those new diagnoses, so it’s not just an artefact of people who have had HIV for a long time coming forward and being tested for the first time.

Ryan attributed the rise to a number of factors rather than a single recognisable cause. Newly acquired HIV is more infectious, said Ryan, and a higher prevalence of sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhoea and syphilis also added to the level of infectiousness.

Ignorance about condom use and safe sex education was not considered a major cause, however. Clayton told the Star the majority of new infections were occurring in men aged between 25 and 50.

A lot of people when they hear that there has been an increase in infections rush to the assumption that what we’re talking about is younger people who haven’t lived through the worst days of the epidemic and don’t know any better -¦ when in fact around 80 percent of new infections are aged between 25 and 50, Clayton said.

We are talking about gay men who have been around through most of the epidemic -¦ where almost their entire sexually active life was in an environment of HIV and safe sex and using condoms.

Clayton said further research was needed on mental and emotional issues that happen for men in their 30s and 40s.

Things like -¦ thinking that sex will be more intimate without condoms; or men who have been in relationships for some time when they have negotiated not to use condoms and now it’s difficult to negotiate them back into that relationship -¦

There may be issues around men who have had relatively staid sex lives, who are wanting to experiment a bit more when they get older. And to some extent there are issues around drug use that may be impacting on it to some extent as well, Clayton said.

NSW Health and ACON joined forces with the Australian Society for HIV Medicine, PLWHA (NSW) and three metropolitan area health services to present an HIV Action Plan in response to the rise, presenting advertisements which began three weeks ago.

Although better medications have made HIV a less life-threatening condition, Clayton and Ryan emphasised that HIV still presented major problems for people.

It’s not an easy life living with HIV. I think it’s really important for people in our community to understand that, Clayton said.

Although in terms of health HIV has become more manageable, the implications are still huge for people in terms of health and lifestyle and day-to-day decision-making, and that’s 224 people who’ve had that experience in the last six months, Ryan said.

I don’t think it’s complacency, I just think people don’t have a clear picture of what it’s like to live with HIV at this point in time, she said.

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