HIV/AIDS Surges In
Oz State Of Victoria

By Peter Ker and Michelle Wood

Victoria's rate of HIV diagnoses has risen markedly over the past two years, worrying Australia's HIV/AIDS experts who will meet in Melbourne next month to develop a new state campaign and review the national response to the disease.
The number of new HIV notifications rose 6.6 per cent in 2001 - up from 198 cases to 211 - and by 41 per cent in 2000, according to the Victorian Infectious Diseases Bulletin. After a gradual decline in diagnoses throughout the 1990s, the sharp increase in 2000 represents the highest number of notifications in Victoria for six years.
The national president of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, Bill Whittaker, said yesterday: "These figures in Victoria are a clear warning sign. We have got a window of opportunity to fix up Australia's AIDS response. We should take it now - if we don't we are going to pay down the road with more HIV infections, more costs and more human suffering."
The deputy director of Melbourne's Burnet Institute, Nick Crofts, warned that "safe-sex fatigue" and optimism about treatments had, to some extent, changed the way people viewed HIV/AIDS. "In some ways the fear of AIDS has lost some of its bite," he said.
Next month's Melbourne forum will help to launch a new state HIV/AIDS strategy. Rob Moodie, chief executive officer of VicHealth and chair of the ministerial advisory committee on AIDS, said one area the forum would investigate was why rises in infection rates in Victoria and South Australia had not been reflected in all states. "We are intrigued and we can't work out why this hasn't happened in New South Wales yet, because they have even higher levels of unprotected anal intercourse and higher levels of gonorrhoea," he said.
Local concerns coincide with the opening today of the 14th bi-annual international AIDS summit in Barcelona, Spain, where many of the world's health leaders, scientists and activists are expected to discuss proposals to provide aid to the poorest countries in Africa - the continent hardest hit by HIV/AIDS.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for up to $20 billion to pay for AIDS education and anti-retroviral drugs. Only 7 per cent of that amount has been pledged so far.
And, on the eve of the summit, a new study by international experts says that two-thirds of the infections expected to occur in the next eight years - some 29 million - could be averted if nations quickly instituted disease-prevention strategies, such as advertising campaigns, condom distribution and needle exchanges for drug users.
Dr Moodie said the new Victorian campaign would aim to counter HIV/AIDS in a variety of ways. "It covers increased efforts in prevention education, voluntary counselling and testing, the care and management of people who have HIV and also in preventative treatment for drug users."
Dr Crofts said although Australia was admired for its role in controlling HIV, it had failed to heed a warning from the inaugural director of UNAIDS, the late Jonathon Mann. "He came to Australia once and he said, 'Your biggest danger is complacency', and I think we've fallen into that over the last few years.
"New generations of gay men are coming up who haven't experienced the impact of AIDS because they've grown up and become sexually active in an atmosphere of availability of treatments," Dr Crofts said.
The president of the Victorian AIDS Council, Darren Russell, said although Australian levels of HIV infection remained among the world's lowest, a recent increase in HIV diagnoses rates was one of many factors that could lead to further rises. "My gut feeling is we're not going to see a decrease at this stage," Dr Russell said.


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