Mark Stoove

A NEW study seeks to identify accurate rates of HIV in Australia’s gay male communities through anonymous testing to pinpoint HIV-positive men unaware of their status.

Called Count, the study will be conducted by the Burnet Institute and the University of New South Wales alongside the Gay Community Periodic Survey at gay events and venues throughout the LGBTI festival seasons in Melbourne and Sydney this month and next month. The study asks participants to provide a saliva sample and can be taken on the spot.

Count is based on a previous study, Suck It and See, which conducted completely anonymous HIV testing in 2008, revealing 9.6 per cent of participants were HIV-positive.

The study’s chief investigator Associate Professor Mark Stoové (pictured) told the Star Observer that while the prevalence of HIV in the previous study was expected, the results included something much more startling.

“The fact that just over 30 per cent of those with HIV reported that they either didn’t know their status or thought that they were negative did take us by surprise,” Stoové said.

He explained these results were particularly surprising given perceptions of relatively high levels of testing among Australia’s gay communities when compared with other developed countries.

Suck It and See provoked some controversy around the study identifying a proportion of gay men who participated were in the community with undiagnosed HIV and remained unaware of their status.

“What we did for that study which I think was particularly effective was within a week or so of knowing the overall results — this many people had HIV and this many people were unaware that they had HIV — we worked with the Victorian AIDS Council to develop a social marketing campaign,” Stoové said.

Following the release of the results, advertisements in the LGBTI press called for participants concerned about their status to seek clinical HIV testing.

The difference with Count is that while all testing as part of Suck It and See was anonymous, participants in Count have the option to receive the results of their HIV test. When they agree to take the test, participants can provide information to be contacted about their results or the saliva sample can be taken anonymously.

Researchers hope to collect data on the sexual behaviour of gay men with undiagnosed HIV specifically.

“Currently much of the information we have about undiagnosed HIV is based on modelling. We don’t have a really firm idea of the amount of undiagnosed HIV in the community, nationally,” Stoové said.

“All the modelling in Australia and internationally suggests that undiagnosed HIV is probably the major contributor to HIV transmissions. We know when people get diagnosed they generally modify their risk behaviours accordingly, but it also provides them an opportunity to access treatment in a timely way.”

HIV-positive people accessing effective treatment are unlikely to transmit it to others, making early diagnosis vital to reducing HIV transmissions.

Count will be recruiting this Sunday at the Midsumma Carnival.

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