An HIV study has revealed there is a lack of testing among heterosexual men and women and a low level of awareness about the disease was common.

The national Seroconversion Study, which was a collaborative effort by the Kirby Institute at UNSW, the Australian Research Centre in Sex Health and Society, the UNSW National Centre in HIV Social Research, AIDS Councils and people living with HIV (PLHIV) organisations in each state, included data from HIV-positive women and HIV-positive heterosexual men found low levels of perceived HIV risk among heterosexuals and a lack of regular testing. It also revealed poor knowledge and awareness of HIV prior to diagnosis.

“The recently diagnosed heterosexuals often did not think they were at risk and did not routinely test for HIV,” said UNSW National Centre in HIV Social Research’s Asha Persson, who conducted interviews with the study’s female participants.

“This perception of low HIV risk also appeared to be shared to some degree by their health professionals, as some women were not initially tested for HIV when they became ill.”

The findings follow the release of HIV statistics this week revealing an eight percent jump in new cases this year, and an increase of 50 percent over the last five years.

Study coordinator Ian Down said community-based and peer-led HIV testing services were viewed favourably by many of the gay men who had been recently diagnosed.

“Many had delayed testing because they felt uncomfortable in other, more clinical settings,” Down said.

“But when they found a service that made them feel welcome and provided more fact-based information, they quickly made the decision to get tested.”

The annual survey of knowledge and beliefs before and after HIV diagnosis also found that a higher proportion of young gay men are making up the 1000 new HIV cases in Australia each year.

The study is a collaboration between the Kirby Institute at UNSW, the Australian Research Centre in Sex Health and Society, the UNSW National Centre in HIV Social Research, AIDS Councils and people living with HIV (PLHIV) organisations in each state.

The Kirby Institute’s associate professor Garrett Prestage warned that funding for the survey was not secure after 2012. “Findings from the Seroconversion Study have been used to develop policy and health responses by health departments and community organisations around the country,” he said.

“It has been one of the key pieces of research in the Australian response to HIV overall. It would be a tragedy if funding cuts mean we no longer understand people’s behaviour in relation to HIV infection.”

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