Australia’s HIV infection rate has levelled off for the first time in a decade.
Figures to be released tomorrow at the Australasian HIV/AIDS Conference will show that the rate of HIV diagnoses has levelled off, with 995 new cases reported in 2008 compared with 1051 in 2007.
“These new figures do not yet constitute a trend, but reaching a plateau is preferable to the continuing increases we had over the last decade,” AFAO’s executive director Don Baxter said.
“It is pleasing and it does demonstrate that re-investment in the program works, and it does demonstrate that most gay men are doing safe sex nearly all the time, so they are encouraging, positive signs.”
Victoria, whose figures for 2008 remained stable at 5.3 new infections per 100,000 of the population, compared to 5.5 in 2006, played a large role in the result, Baxter said.
“Victoria and Queensland reduced investment in HIV prevention and support programs and their infection rates rose.
“The fact that Victoria did re-invest in the program in 2006, that’s now had an impact in the community, and that’s where most of the decrease has happened — among gay men in Victoria.
“Queensland is about the same, which suggests that Queensland needs to re-invest on the same scale.” Queensland began to increase its HIV funding last year, which Baxter predicted would translate into decreasing figures over the next two years.
“There’s still a fair bit of volatility in the epidemic around the country,” ACON’s CEO Stevie Clayton said.
“We’re moving to a situation where we have really different-looking epidemics in different states. For instance, in Western Australia, in other places where we have the mining boom we’re seeing increases in HIV infections among heterosexual men who are getting HIV in connection with travel.”
NSW is the only state to have maintained HIV prevention funding over the past decade, and the only state to have shown a stable rate — around 5.7 new diagnoses per 100,000 — over that time.
Baxter warned, however, that this should not yet be considered a trend.
“There was a change in the way NSW collected the data about two years ago, but my gut feeling is that if the rates next year are going in a similar direction, then I think that will be a trend. But undoubtably NSW is doing better than the other states and that is partly because of its better leadership and collaboration between the Government and the community.”
Clayton agreed government relationships were key.
“In some thinktanks that have looked at comparing NSW with the other states, a key issue that has come up is that there is some sort of minimum funding you need to provide to get the basic information out there. We don’t have a figure but there’s clearly a bare minimum that has been happening in NSW that hasn’t been happening in other states,” she said.
Increasing funding in other states will be key if we are to see a real drop in figures, according to Baxter.
“These outcomes demonstrate that for a modest increase in funding in HIV prevention we’d be able to achieve that nationally,” Baxter said.
“It’s a good argument for the Department of Health and Ageing and the Minister to take to the Cabinet in next year’s budget and say ‘let’s invest a bit more and we’ll have the figures going down’. ”
“We’ve been doing major STI campaigns in each state and territory and nationally, but I have to say, they’re not on the scale they need to be.
“As the gay community changes its nature a lot and gay men don’t go out to gay institutions as much as they used to, we need to move these campaigns out into more mainstream communication channels. I think that’s part of the rationale for increased funding because we do need to move beyond the gay community communication channels.”
Baxter is concerned, however, that proposed changes to Commonwealth, state health funding arrangements could have the opposite result. Pooling HIV prevention resources into general hospital funding could make those finances vulnerable.