From: Brenda Lana Smith R.af D.
Mystery over surge in Victoria's HIV rate - t...
Mystery over surge in Victoria's HIV rate
December 1 2002
By Liz Minchin
The number of Victorians diagnosed with HIV has surged in the past year,
particularly among gay men, heterosexual women and injecting drug users.
According to the latest Victorian Infectious Diseases Bulletin, which is
about to be published, there were 233 HIV notifications in Victoria during
the 12 months from July 2001 to June 2002, up from 196 notifications the
Around Australia, South Australia was the only other state or territory to
post an increase in HIV diagnoses in 2001. Despite the falling national
trend, in Victoria HIV notifications have shot up since 1999, when they fell
to a low of 139 new diagnoses.
The head of the Burnet Institute's epidemiology and social research unit,
Margaret Hellard, said there were no clear reasons for Victoria's apparent
HIV spike, but that it may be linked to more people having unsafe sex.
"There is lots of evidence that more people - gay and straight - are having
unprotected intercourse because of the increase we've seen in chlamydia and
syphilis and, until last year, gonorrhoea," Dr Hellard said.
The increase in infections happened across different risk groups,
particularly among men having sex with men, heterosexual women - though not
to the same extent, and injecting drug users.
The report also showed a 24 per cent rise in newly acquired HIV - people
infected within the past 12 months - for the year to June 2002.
Dr Hellard said newly acquired HIV cases helped indicate whether there were
new transmissions of HIV happening or, alternatively, that more people who
had carried the virus for a long time had only just been tested.
"The fact that those cases are going up too is important, because it adds
weight to the idea that this is not just a blip, but that there are more
infections occurring," she said.
The vice-president of the National Association of People Living with
HIV/AIDS, David Menadue, said no one could understand why Victoria's HIV
figures were so different.
"There are a lot of theories around, but it's really a bit of a mystery," he
said. "I don't think Melbourne's gay population is any less responsible
(about safe sex) than in Sydney or other places."
Others are concerned that HIV campaigns continue to focus so heavily on gay
men, letting heterosexuals wrongly think it's only a "gay man's disease".
Michael Rogerson, the executive director of Straight Arrows, a support group
for heterosexual people with HIV, said he had heard of a growing number of
straight travellers bringing home HIV from overseas.
"Anecdotally, it seems to be young women who going off on an adventure to
Africa and coming back infected with HIV but not knowing it, while guys are
going to places like Thailand or the Philippines, getting drunk, doing
something stupid, and getting infected," Mr Rogerson said.
"It's understandable that most of the prevention effort goes into gay men,
because that's the highest risk group in Australia. But I think it's
reaching a point where we need broader campaigns."
The chief executive of VicHealth and chairman of the ministerial committee
on AIDS, Rob Moodie, said he thought complacency had allowed HIV and AIDS to
drop off the public agenda.
"During the 1990s we saw much lower death rates, which was terrific, and HIV
went from being a fatal disease to a chronic manageable disease," Dr Moodie
said. "But partly because of that . . . there was some complacency in our
system of education and prevention, and things like condom promotion and
safe sex education aren't yet back to the levels they can and should be."
VicHealth plans to tackle the rising HIV rate with a number of education
programs, including one to better inform newly arrived migrants,
particularly those from high-risk countries, and revitalising a GP education
Of the 233 Victorians diagnosed with HIV in the year to June, 204 (88 per
cent) were male, 28 (12 per cent) were female, and one was transgender. Gay
or bisexual men who were exposed to HIV through sex accounted for 148 of the
cases; 23 men and 15 women were infected through heterosexual sex.
Last year there were about 12,730 people living with HIV/AIDS around
Australia, about 4250 of them in Victoria, according to the 2002 Annual
Surveillance Report on HIV/AIDS.
© 2002 The Age Company Ltd
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