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Last Updated: Friday, 9 February 2007, 13:28 GMT
Australia alarm at rises in HIV
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Oxford Street in Sydney, the centre of Australia's gay culture
The increase in infections has the government worried

HIV is again casting an ominous shadow across Australia's gay community.

Infection rates rose by 41% between 2000 and 2005.

Charities have warned that although the epidemic is nowhere near as bad as it was in the 1980s, the latest figures are alarming.

There is a fear that a new generation of homosexual men has become complacent about the threat of a virus that is no longer seen as a killer.

"HIV doesn't seem to provoke that same sense of urgency anymore," said David Menadue, who was diagnosed with the virus in 1984 and is one of Australia's longest-surviving HIV patients.

"Certainly people look healthier," Mr Menadue said. "A lot of people are HIV positive and you'd never know."

In 2005 there were about 950 diagnoses of HIV in Australia mostly among gay men, who account for around 80% of infections. The figure for heterosexuals is just over 18% while intravenous drug users who attend needle exchange programmes make up about 1% of the total.

David Menadue
It's a very difficult existence because I am on 30 tablets a day and invariably some of those have some very harsh side-effects
David Menadue

The increase in the infection rate in the gay community follows a decline in the late 1990s.

"What's changed is that HIV has moved from being a fatal condition to being a chronic, manageable disease," said Geoff Honnor from the Australian charity People Living With HIV and Aids.

"Gay men have adjusted their risk assessment accordingly."

David Menadue, 54, is on a daily cocktail of drugs.

"It's no walk in the park," he said. "It's a very difficult existence because I am on 30 tablets a day and invariably some of those have some very harsh side-effects."

His kidneys have been damaged and he has developed diabetes as a result of the treatments. On top of that he has a high risk of heart attacks.

Jump in infections

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks the body's natural defences.

Under this barrage victims become vulnerable to potentially life-threatening infections and cancers. If untreated, most HIV-infected people develop Aids and die.

Australia has so far recorded 6,660 Aids-related deaths.

The country's incidence of HIV and Aids pales when compared to Africa. Rates are also far higher in the United States and South East Asia.

But the surge in infections has worried the Australian government.

The federal government has been notoriously conservative in recent years ... so we're a bit cautious about the new campaign. That said, there's a crying need for it
Stevie Clayton
AIDS Council of New South Wales

It is promising to spend A$10m ($7.7m) on a new education campaign.

"It's about getting the necessary information to people who need it the most," said federal health minister Tony Abbott. "What we need is responsible behaviour."

Changing attitudes to sex, especially among the young, is a major challenge.

"There is a trend of risk-taking among the younger generation - guys in their late teens, early 20s are pretty gung-ho," said Peter, a gay man in his late-30s.

Drinking a beer in a bar on Sydney's Oxford Street Anthony, 24, admitted to having unprotected sex a "few times".

"I know the risks. I'm as careful as a I can be but after a few drinks and stuff things can get a bit crazy," he said.

The government also wants to find out why HIV infections have risen in Victoria and Queensland, while they have fallen in New South Wales.

Experts are at a loss to explain precisely why, for example, the number of HIV cases had increased in Melbourne but not in Sydney, Australia's gay capital.

Stevie Clayton, from the Aids Council of New South Wales, believes the answer lies in the concerted work of charities, the State government, scientists and the homosexual population.

The new, centrally-funded awareness campaign has received a guarded welcome.

"The federal government has been notoriously conservative in recent years when it comes to resources for HIV, work so we're a bit cautious about the new campaign being delivered," said Stevie Clayton.

"That said, there is a crying need for it," she said.




SEE ALSO
Australia warned of Aids spread
29 Jul 06 |  Asia-Pacific
HIV impact: Region-by-region
30 Nov 05 |  Health

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