By Elias Jahshan and Benjamin Riley

WORLD AIDS Day commemorations around the country kicked off this morning with the unveiling of a large, 12m-long red ribbon on the lawn outside Parliament House in Canberra.

Meanwhile in Melbourne, hundreds gathered at Federation Square for a special public event and a new permanent rapid HIV testing shopfront was announced in Sydney.

In Canberra, members and experts in Australia’s HIV sector were joined by senior MPs from both sides of politics at the unveiling of the giant red ribbon, which had previously been suspended from the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The unveiling was the first of several events to be held at Parliament House to mark World AIDS Day, which included the ACT premiere screening of documentary Transmissions: The Journey from AIDS to HIV, and a parliamentary panel chaired by ABC’s Fran Kelly and featuring Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, NAPWHA president Rob Mitchell, and internationally-renowned Australian HIV scientist and former AIDS 2014 co-chair Sharon Lewin.

According to Bill Bowtell, one of the leading advocates behind Australia’s response to HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s and current executive director of Pacific Friends of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, World AIDS Day is still as important as ever.

“We are honoured to have representatives from all political parties and independents support World AIDS Day 2014,” he said.

“It continues the long tradition in Australia of multi-partisan commitment and resourcing in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

“Globally, rates of new HIV infection are falling, but these achievements cannot be taken for granted. In Australia, HIV infection rates are rising but can, and should, be brought down.

“The red ribbon symbolises our determination to defeat HIV infection at home and around the world.”

Meanwhile in Sydney, state Health Minister Jillian Skinner launched the first permanent and free rapid HIV testing shopfront for NSW on Oxford St, Darlinghurst.

The a[TEST] shopfront builds on the success of recent pop-up HIV rapid testing sites throughout the state and will be operated by ACON in partnership with the South Eastern Sydney Local Health District and the St Vincent’s Health Network.

It is expected to open to the public in early 2015, and will be staffed by trained gay men as well as clinicians.

“Increasing testing rates among gay men is vital to our goal of ending HIV transmission in NSW by 2020,” ACON president Mark Orr said.

ACON already operates a[TEST] clinics in Surry Hills, Kings Cross and Newtown and HIV tests are also available in public sexual health services across the state, but the very visible shopfront on Oxford St — right in the epicentre of Sydney’s gay bar precinct just three doors down from the popular Stonewall Hotel — is expected to make a further difference in encouraging more men who have sex with men to get tested.

“Data is showing that our efforts to increase testing rates are working, but we need lots more guys to test regularly to make a real difference,” Orr said.

“We’re encouraging gay men to know their HIV status by getting tested regularly, at least twice a year.”

Jillian Skinner

NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner at the launch of the new a{TEST] shopfront on Sydney’s Oxford St.

Following the Oxford St shopfront launch, Skinner visited the Ankali House in nearby Surry Hills for the official opening of the Albion Centre Rapid HIV Testing and Drug Information Service, which will be staffed by nurses and clinical psychologists to provide community-based, after-hours and weekend access to assessment, HIV testing and information.

At dusk, Sydney Town Hall will be adorned in projected images of red ribbons to mark World AIDS Day.

Over in Melbourne, the community gathered in Federation Square in the rain to mark the beginning of World AIDS Day, with a number of speakers addressing the crowd.

Associate Professor Mark Stoove from the Burnet Institute spoke pointedly about the global World AIDS Day theme “Getting to Zero”, and the potential risks associated with targets that are overly ambitious and specific.

“While getting to zero includes zero AIDS-related deaths and zero discrimination, it is often zero new infections that attracts the most attention… is it realistic, or is this goal essentially one of aspiration?” Stoove asked.

“Unfortunately, it is often the bold declarations about disease outcomes that dominate prevention success or failure, ones that are sometimes more politically driven than evidence-informed.”

Stoove took aim at the target outlined in the current National HIV Strategy to reduce sexually transmitted infections by 50 per cent by 2015.

“Unfortunately, taking on ambitious disease outcome targets as literal rather than aspirational risks worthy or otherwise successful programs being discarded, or inappropriately revised if new diagnoses targets are not met,” he argued.

One of the positive speakers at the event was Sarah Fegan from Positive Women, who moved many in the crowd to tears with her own story of diagnosis and stigma.

Fegan told the Star Observer addressing HIV stigma was a big, long-term project.

“I think it needs to go broader than this… to get people outside of [World AIDS Day] engaged is quite hard,” she said.

“It’s going into schools at younger ages and starting educate people then, and having more open forum discussions, national ad campaigns I’d love to see, so I think we’re making little dents certainly, after the conference, but still a long way to go.”

Living Positive Victoria president Ian Muchamore told the Star Observer that having AIDS 2014 in Melbourne had built momentum around HIV, but it was vital to ensure the talk translated into real action.

“One of the things that happened over the last six months was that stigma and discrimination was on the agenda everywhere,” he said.

“In any scientific talk you went to, about testing or about treatment, or even about looking for a cure, people were also talking about HIV stigma and discrimination, but there is still a gap in what needs to be done in an anti-stigma project.”

Muchamore pointed to programs like ENUF as important community-based initiatives for tackling HIV stigma.

While tonight’s memorial service in Melbourne (details in poster below) will remember those who have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the epidemic began in Australia in the 1980s, the nationwide events this morning focused on the present and looked to the future.

The Queensland AIDS Council will also host a World AIDS Day candlelight vigil tonight in Brisbane from 6.30pm at New Farm Park Rotunda.

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