Action needed on remote and regional virus rise

Associate Professor James Ward. Photo by SAHMRI.

HIV is on the rise in regional and remote areas as diagnoses rates among Indigenous Australians run at double that of the non-Indigenous community, an HIV and AIDS conference was told.

Associate Professor James Ward, a Pitjantjatjara and Nurrunga man who heads Aboriginal Health Infectious Diseases at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, said Australia needs to act to stop the increase in Indigenous diagnoses.

The findings were presented at the Australasian HIV & AIDS Conference in Sydney last week.

Associate Professor Ward said in the last five years there had been a 41 percent rise in the rate of HIV diagnoses among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people compared to a 12 percent decline in the number of diagnoses among Australian born non-Indigenous people.

He said there had also been a rise in cases in regional areas where there were the least sexual health and specialist services to deal with it.

“There is a clear trend for HIV to be more diagnosed in regional and remote areas than we’ve ever seen before,” Associate Professor Ward said.

Associate Professor Ward also said while 70 percent of diagnoses in non-Indigenous Australia were men who had sex with other men, in the Indigenous population more than half of all diagnoses were heterosexual people infected through sex or drugs.

About a third of diagnoses in Indigenous people were also picked up late or when the HIV was in an advanced state and they had been living with it for more than four years, he said.

Associate Professor Ward said the spread of the virus could be battled on several fronts — the use of rapid tests could be increased to try to reduce the proportion of late diagnoses and testing could be scaled up at correctional and antenatal centres.

“One important point we need to mobilise around is the potential for outbreaks in areas where there is least HIV expertise, particularly in regional and remote areas,” he said.

“It has been a common thread over the last five to 10 years that there have been small outbreaks in regional and remote areas and it puts enormous strain on health services in those settings and an enormous buy-in of expertise is often required.”

He said community awareness campaigns and prevention education in schools and universities could also help.

Professor Rebecca Guy, head of the Surveillance Evaluation and Research Program at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales, said overall there had been a seven percent fall in HIV diagnoses among all people in Australiain the last five years.

Last year, 963 new cases were diagnosed compared to more than a 1000 in previous years. The 2017 figure was the lowest since 2010.

The drop was mainly among gay and bisexual men where diagnoses fell fifteen percent last year. Gay and bisexual men account for almost two thirds of all HIV infections in Australia.

But among the heterosexual population HIV diagnoses increased by 10 percent in five years.

By Wendy Caccetta

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