HIV notifications in NSW rose by another six percent in 2003, according to new figures released by NSW Health this week.

It’s still increasing, in fact it’s almost 22 percent over a two year period. It’s -¦ alarming, Dr Jeremy McAnulty of NSW Health told Sydney Star Observer.

Last year NSW Health reported a 15 percent increase in the number of notified HIV diagnoses. Combined with the latest six percent rise McAnulty said this constituted the first sustained rise in HIV since the late 1980s.

Health groups have responded to the new jump with a mixture of concern and optimism.

We hope -“ and we need to get more data on it -“ that it’s trending in the right direction, Don Baxter, executive officer of AFAO, told the Star. I suppose the point is maintaining a downward trend rather than being satisfied that it’s not going up -˜as far’.

Gay men living in the inner city and inner west constituted the majority of new diagnoses, which McAnulty said were due to a number of interacting factors.

Obviously unsafe sex accounts for the bulk of it, he said. [And] it’s probably a combination of a higher viral load in newly infected people, possibly with co-existing STIs as well. Also, the pool of people living with HIV is expanding in recent years.

This probably means that if you’re having unsafe sex the chances of having sex with a casual partner who has HIV have increased, McAnulty said.

AIDS Council of NSW president Adrian Lovney told the Star he believed the lower percentage of new infections indicated an increase in condom use.

We think that people have changed their behaviour on the back of what they perceive as being an increased risk in the community, Lovney said, noting campaigns initiated late last year warning of a rise in infections.

Papers at this week’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and Related Diseases (HHARD) Social Research Conference support Lovney’s claim.

Paul Van de Ven of the National Centre in HIV Social Research reported that incidents of unprotected anal sex by HIV-negative men had decreased for the first time since 1996. The data from the upcoming Sydney Gay Community Periodic Survey also revealed a turnaround in unprotected anal sex by HIV-positive men, although Van de Ven told the Star the figures were not statistically significant.

Not everyone greeted the lower rise in infections with ambivalence.

President of PLWHA (NSW) Rob Lake called the continued increase an HIV reality check. In a press release issued this week, Lake said the organisation was working with other HIV agencies to revitalise messages about the need for safe sex amongst positive and negative people, to reinforce a culture of care and safer sex in NSW.

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