11 July 2016
by Saimi Jeong

AIDS epidemic 'over' in Australia, say peak bodies

Australia's peak AIDS organisations and scientists have announced an end to the AIDS epidemic, as the country joins the few nations in the world to have beaten the syndrome.

The number of annual cases of AIDS diagnoses is now so small, top researchers and the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations have declared the public health issue to be over.

Since the 1990s, treatment that stops HIV from progressing to AIDS – which damages the immune system to the extent that it can no longer fight off infection – has become more effective.

AFAO CEO Darryl O'Donnell said AIDS cases have dropped to small enough numbers to no longer be routinely recorded.

"AIDS is over in the way we knew it," he said. "We've got access to treatment that has had extraordinary effect, and community activism since the very early years of AIDS in the '80s and '90s has helped the efforts to fight it."

Professor Sharon Lewin, director of the Peter Doherty Institute, told the ABC that anti-retroviral medications had been crucial to the epidemic's decline, allowing people diagnosed with HIV to live healthy, long lives.

"I've actually seen a dramatic transformation of HIV from a universal death sentence to now a chronic, manageable disease," Professor Lewin said.

However, Mr O'Donnell said Australia still has a major challenge in addressing HIV. "We still have a huge task in dealing with the 1100 to 1200 cases of HIV per year," he said. "These are avoidable infections."

Mr O'Donnell stressed the importance of getting tested, with early diagnosis the best chance of treating HIV.

He said he expected the pre-exposure prophylaxis Truvada, a once-a-day pill taken to prevent HIV, to be a game-changer comparable to the impact of the contraceptive pill.

"We need urgent action from the Australian government to subsidise this pill," he said, adding that Truvada would see HIV cases halved in a year.

AIDS bodies have also advocated for more focus on the regional impact of the syndrome.

"We're incredibly fortunate here in Australia that we have an excellent healthcare system. In the Asia-Pacific, 180,000 people die from AIDS each year and of the 5 million living with HIV, only 2 million have access to treatment," Mr O'Donnell said.