By Louise Cheer
Experts say Australia still needs to do more for the awareness of Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome in the general population.
These comments come after Sunday’s 30th anniversary of the world’s first reported case of AIDS in the United States when five young men contracted the virus and two died.
There are almost 21,000 people in Australia who are currently living with HIV/AIDS and around 2,000 to 3,000 Queenslanders living with the virus.
It was estimated 33.3 million people would be living with the infection worldwide at the end of 2009.
Murdoch University Institute for Immunology and Infectious Diseases Director Simon Mallal says it has become harder to encourage safe practices to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS as treatments have become better.
“We constantly need to improve awareness of what remains the biggest health threat to man,” he said.
“We are victims of our own success.”
Queensland Association for Healthy Communities executive director Paul Martin says some Australians still think HIV is only contained within the gay community but those who have unprotected sex with casual partners are putting themselves at risk.
“I think there’s a good level of awareness [of HIV] within the communities most at risk [such as] the gay male community,…sex workers and injecting drug users,” he said.
“For the general community, I think people have an awareness of HIV and AIDS but I think it’s outdated.
“They probably have an understanding and knowledge [of it] but it’s 10, 15 or 20 years old rather than up-to-date knowledge.”
Professor Mallal says the most common transmission of the virus in the world, particularly in Africa, is heterosexual transmission.
“[This means] the younger and more sexually active are at greatest risk,” he said.
“Also people travelling and working in endemic areas.”
The following QAHC video gives a brief history on HIV/AIDS advocacy and awareness in Australia:
The first reported infections were initially recorded as cases of pneumocystis jiroveci pneumonia (was pneumocystis carinii pneumonia), a fungal infection of the lungs, but it was later acknowledged to be the first recorded case of the virus.
Australia is a couple years off its 30 year mark since its first recorded case of HIV/AIDS but Mr Martin says there is still a level of stigma and discrimination against people who are living with HIV.
“I think that people need to be aware that for many people HIV is a life-long manageable condition,” he said.
“It’s not the death sentence that it was 20 years ago.”
National Association of People living with HIV/AIDS (NAPWA) media and communications officer Paul Kidd agrees.
“[I think there is] a lot of fear around HIV…and [people living with it] have been terribly mistreated by people they depend on,” he said.
“There is a level of misunderstanding in the community.”
However, Professor Mallal says Australia has been remarkably quick in implementing measures to prevent the spread of the virus since 1981.
“AIDS cases were first recognised in the US in 1981 and HIV as the cause of AIDS in 1983,” he said.
“HIV testing was introduced in 1984 and measures to secure the blood supply and prevent spread of HIV, such as condom use and needle exchange, was introduced in Australia very early.
“This Australian response was exemplary by international standards and was possible because of generosity of spirit of the broader Australian community.
“It was done for humanitarian reasons but turned out to save many lives and have been the economically rational thing to have done.”
Mr Martin says Australia is highly rated compared to other nations for its health care provided to people with HIV.
“A good service is available through general practice and Medicare but also through government sexual health clinics that provide HIV care and support services,” he said.
“Drugs are affordable for people through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme…including those with limited incomes.”
AZT or zidovudine was the first HIV treatment introduced in 1987 but gave only temporary relief as the virus would become resistant to it after 12 to 18 months.
It was in 1996 when significant breakthroughs were made as triple therapy cocktails and research advances were introduced and allowed researchers to have more understanding of the virus and to monitor the results accurately in the blood.
Professor Mallal says even though this caused AIDS and related deaths to plummet more research was carried out as patients were taking large amounts of pills with numerous side effects.
“Again research and clinical trials have allowed us to eliminated most side effects and dramatically reduce the pill burden so that HIV has become a chronic manageable disease in developed countries,” he said.
“The challenge in recent years has been to roll out these treatments to the developing world who carry the greatest burden of disease.”
Current ventures in research include global efforts to develop a preventative vaccine, preventing the virus from infecting before and after exposure, efforts to encourage risk reduction and treatment as prevention.
Queensland Association for Healthy Communities www.qahc.org.au
National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS www.napwa.org.au
Murdoch University’s Genesiis Campaign www.genesiis.murdoch.edu.au