HIV infection rates in NSW hit record low, but there are concerns
April 20, 2019
The number of new HIV cases in NSW has dropped to their lowest level since 1984, but NSW Health would not say whether it will hit its target of “virtually” eliminating the disease by 2020.
In 2018, 278 people had a newly diagnosed HIV infection, which was 17 per cent lower than the 2013-2017 average and 83 per cent lower than the 1987 peak, the latest government data shows.
Despite the downward trend annually, there were 86 new infections in the December quarter, mostly in men who have sex with men. This is an increase compared with recent quarters.
“NSW Health, with its community partners, researchers and clinicians, are committed to the virtual elimination of transmission of HIV,” a NSW Health spokesperson said.
“While the number of notifications vary from quarter to quarter, we are optimistic that the ongoing implementation of key strategies will continue to drive down new infections.”
The NSW government vowed in 2012 to wipe out HIV by 2020, launching an ambitious strategy to increase condom use, regular HIV testing and the availability of the anti-HIV drug pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
Of the 278 new cases last year, 78 per cent were in gay and bisexual men, while 19 per cent were in heterosexual people.
There has also been a divergence in the number of cases between Australian-born and overseas-born men with male sexual partners.
The infection rate in Australian-born men dropped by 33 per cent compared with the previous five-year average, while in overseas-born men it fell by only 3 per cent.
In addition, the rate of those with late or advanced stage infection in Australian-born men declined by 23 per cent compared with the previous five-year average, while in overseas-born men it jumped by 33 per cent.
NSW opposition health spokesman Walt Secord said the overall record low was a great achievement, but said the government’s claim in 2017 that it was on track to end HIV transmission by 2020 was “premature”.
He called on the government to tailor education and social media campaigns to engage better with culturally and linguistically diverse men.
“Labor provides its bipartisan support to the current approach, but would like to see the Berejiklian government look at ways to get the message to overseas-born men,” he said.
Nicolas Parkhill, chief executive of HIV prevention group ACON, said it was working hard to design, build and deliver responses to increase engagement with overseas-born men, recently launching a Chinese testing service.
He is also calling for more HIV testing options, such as self-testing devices.
“Self-testing will help overcome key barriers some people experience when testing, such as fear of a positive result in the presence of a healthcare provider, avoiding screening due to privacy concerns or lack of access to sexual health services,” he said.
The NSW government committed $21.9 million in 2018-19 to strengthen testing, treatment and prevention, as well as funding 47 sexual health clinics that provide HIV testing.
A NSW Health spokeswoman said that, while it was pleased to see the overall decline in cases, it continued efforts to increase testing, to ensure those living with HIV receive the best care, and to highlight prevention through the use of condoms and PrEP.
She did not directly answer whether NSW Health still believed it could end HIV transmission by next year.
“A targeted NSW Health campaign, which focuses on men travelling overseas and men at risk of HIV transmission who identify as heterosexual was released this week,” the spokeswoman said.
“The campaign aims to increase HIV testing and prevention in these groups.”
HIV testing has been increasing each year, although two-thirds of newly diagnosed gay and bisexual men in 2018 had not had a test in the 12 months prior to their diagnosis.