hiv-initiatorsHIV infection rates in NSW have spiked sharply over the last year, prompting warnings from health officials to practise safe sex and undergo regular HIV and STI checks.

According to new statistics released by NSW Health, 409 people were diagnosed with HIV in 2012 – an increase of 24 percent on the 330 people diagnosed in 2011. An overwhelming 331 of these new infections, 81 percent, were among gay men – a 19 percent increase on the year before.

Men in their thirties were most likely to have been diagnosed, with rises also recorded in the over-twenties and over-fifties age groups.

NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said the rise was “a matter of concern that must be taken seriously”.

“The incidence of HIV infection does fluctuate. While numbers have been steady over the last 15 years, the number of patients newly diagnosed with HIV infection increased in 2012,” Chant said.

A number of factors may have contributed to the spike, including gay men getting tested for HIV more frequently and a decline in condom usage.

However, the statistics only reflect the number of people who were diagnosed with HIV in the last year, not the number of people who actually contracted it. A number of people who were diagnosed may have had HIV for several years, while others who contracted the virus in 2012 are as yet undiagnosed.

Seven rapid-testing centres have open across Sydney recently, mostly in the inner-city/Darlinghurst area, with another nine due to open later in the year. Over 190,000 HIV tests have been conducted in NSW so far this year.

While ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill denied that there was a “culture of fatigue and complacency” among the gay community in recent years, he urged gay men to “stick to the mainstay” of always using condoms and to be aware that other risk reduction strategies may not always be effective.

“Thirty years into the epidemic, the relationship between gay men and HIV has changed. A HIV diagnosis no longer equals death – we see a lot of people living with HIV with about the same life expectancy as people without it. Fear is not driving motivation the way it used to, and that’s a good thing,” Parkhill said.

HIV transmissions through injections remained negligible, accounting for only two percent of new infections.

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