Australian Federation of AIDS Organisaitons (AFAO) executive director Don Baxter has told the 18th International AIDS Conference that Australia is in danger of seeing an upsurge of HIV in its Indigenous communities.

Baxter compared the situation to that in Canada a decade ago which had lead to an explosion of HIV rates among Indigenous Canadians.

“The pre-conditions in Australia now are quite similar to Canada in the 1990s — a rapid increase in injecting drug use in Indigenous communities whose overwhelming focus on serious immediate health challenges meant a tardy, patchy response to the threat of HIV in those communities,” Baxter said.

“That situation saw HIV infections among Indigenous Canadians rise from 3.7 percent of all HIV infections in Canada during the period 1979-1998 to a dramatic 23.3 percent of all HIV infections in the decade 1998-2007.”

More detailed analysis on the issue will be presented at the World AIDS Conference’s International Indigenous working group sessions in Vienna this week.

Anwernekenhe National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander HIV Alliance president Colin Ross shared Baxter’s concern.

“Australia must not repeat this disaster — we in the Anwernekenhe National HIV Alliance believe it’s still avoidable here,” said Ross, “But time is running out rapidly.”

Ross acknowledged that conservative social views held in some Indigenous communities were an obstacle to a change in approach.

“Getting effective needle syringe programs into our Aboriginal communities is even more challenging than in mainstream communities as many of the our leading community elders have not moved beyond a “Just Say No” approach to drugs, which is clearly not working among many of our younger community members”.

Ross said his organisation and the AFAO National HIV/AIDS Project had lead the way in changing Indigenous communities’ willingness to tackle safe sex over the last 20 years, and now it was necessary to open community elders’ minds on issues of clean needle availability and drug use or risk a repeat of the Canadian experience.

Baxter and Ross have called on political parties to make a commitment guaranteeing ongoing funding for the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander HIV Project, conducted by AFAO and the Anwernekenhe National HIV Alliance, during the current election campaign.

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