THE NSW Health Minister has told the Star Observer the personal experience of knowing people who have died of AIDS-related illnesses is the driving force behind her support for ending HIV.
However, the minister acknowledged governments – both state and federal – had more to do if Australians were to get full access to testing and treatment options.
Operated by NSW LGBTI health body ACON and the Sydney Sexual Health Centre, and located in a former wig shop in the heart of Darlinghurst’s Oxford St, the a[TEST] centre will open Monday to Saturday offering free rapid HIV testing and STI screening services.
While the a[TEST] service can also be found in Surry Hills, Newtown and Kings Cross, all of these are within existing clinics or community centres and none have the range of opening hours of the new Oxford St branch.
Skinner said the new walk-in service was in a “perfect location” and built upon the success of last year’s pop-up a[TEST] centre that took up residence on Oxford St during Mardi Gras and saw around 100 people testing per week.
“A permanent presence and the fact it’s open six days and accessible to all will make it a really important element in a joint strategy to increase testing,” she said.Skinner said it was “part of my DNA” to support initiatives to end transmission of the virus.
“I’ve known people who in the ‘80s died of HIV and I’ve know people who are living with HIV and very effectively fulfilling important lives,” she said.
“I just think it’s a crying shame if we can’t get more people to that point.
“It’s a personal commitment because of the people I know, the friends I have and the advice I’ve received for many years… from people who were immersed in dealing with the HIV epidemic in the early days through the development of different approaches.”
Skinner also praised the work of former federal health minister Peter Dutton.
“[He] did more to make early treatment available than ever before and I don’t think he really got acknowledged for that,” she said.
Nevertheless, Skinner understood continued concern surrounding the lack of regulatory approval for home testing kits in Australia and the limited access to HIV-negative men of anti-retroviral drugs despite their use as a preventative measure in the US.
“We’ve still got work to do, its not finished by any means,” Skinner said.
“But I think getting so many more people now tested early, people who’ve never been tested before, people who might not have been had tests often enough is a first step, then getting along to treatment is next, but we’re moving.”
Last year, Skinner, along with all of the country’s health ministers, reaffirmed the goal of the “virtual elimination” of new Australian HIV transmissions by 2020.
ACON President Mark Orr said 20 per cent of people using the current a[TEST] centres were people who had never tested before with a further 20 per cent not having tested for over a year.
“We’re focused on making HIV testing easy, accessible and culturally appropriate through initiatives like our new service on Oxford St,” he said.
“Once people know their status, they can take action to improve their health outcomes and prevent passing on the virus, and the only way they can know their status is to get tested regularly, at least twice a year.”
Last week ACON launched a new public awareness campaign aimed at encouraging HIV positive men to consider treatment soon after diagnosis to improve their own health and reduce the risk of further transmission.
The new a[TEST] centre is at 167 Oxford St, Darlinghurst and is open Monday–Friday 11am–7pm and Saturdays 11.30am–2.30pm.