ONE of the country’s leading LGBTI health advocates has told the Star Observer that Australia is “behind the eight ball” when it comes to combating HIV and the Federal Government needed to do more if the goal of zero new infections by 2020 is to be met.

In an exclusive interview to mark World Aids Day, ACON chief executive Nicolas Parkhill said new HIV testing and prevention technologies, such as home testing kits and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), were unavailable due to being bogged down in federal bureaucracy.

This is despite the Federal Government’s Seventh National HIV Strategy, launched earlier this year by Health Minister Peter Dutton, stating action needed to be taken “to overcome the barriers that impede… efforts to scale up prevention, testing, management, care and support for people living with and at risk of… sexually transmissible infections”.

Parkhill said although ACON was working well with the NSW Government, “to secure a reorientation of services for gay men, that ethos gets stymied at a federal level”.

Of particular concern was the slow rate of progress by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to approve new drugs and medical devices.

Calling the TGA’s pace, “a significant blockage,” Parkhill noted that HIV home testing kits could be purchased at chemists in the US but were unavailable in Australia.

Meanwhile, only one HIV rapid testing kit – for use in clinical settings such as ACON’s a[TEST] centres and the Victorian AIDS Council’s PRONTO! site – has been given the green light by the TGA.

When it came to further rapid testing kits being introduced, Parkhill said: “The requirements of TGA approval are probably too high and too expensive.”

“Manufactures are looking at $50,000 to lodge [an application] and not only is it a long process there is no guarantee it will get approved,” he added.

While ACON supported last week’s announcement by the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute of a two year study into the real-life experiences of people taking PrEP, Parkhill said the green light should be given much sooner.

“In other countries we’re seeing demonstration trials being discontinued because it’s been proven,” he said.

“We’re once again behind the eight ball but what we need is PrEP brought to market so more of the guys who need it get it.”

Parkhill urged the Federal Government to partner with manufacturers to spread the cost of new applications and to compel the TGA to fast track approvals for devices and drugs that were already in use overseas.

“Gay men have consistently shown we are strong public health advocates by containing the infection, now the Federal Government needs to meet us more than halfway so we can finish the job,” he said.

The ACON chief said a continuing lack of progress would lead to gay men accessing PrEP and testing kits online.

“This is a real concern as people bringing in PrEP need to be engaged with healthcare professionals,” Parkhill said.

“We don’t want to see a situation where Australia is so slow that effectively you develop an infrastructure that sits below the line – that would be the worst thing that could happen.”

The Star Observer contacted the Health Minister’s Office for a response but instead received a statement from the TGA.

The spokeswoman said she was confident the 2020 deadline for zero HIV transmission would be met but it was the responsibility of all levels of government to reach that goal.

She added that while the government was keen to minimise red tape and had lifted the ban on home testing kits earlier this year, it was “not the role of government to partner with commercial manufacturers” to bring such a kit to market.

When it came to encouraging or fast tracking approvals, the spokeswoman said: “Neither the TGA, nor the Australian government is able to compel a sponsor to submit an application to have a medication approved through the TGA, or to have a medications indication extended.”

(Main image credit: Ann-Marie Calilhanna; Star Observer)

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