Abby, one of the many remarkable people who features in the documentary that was playing as we arrived about Australia’s experience with HIV/AIDS (Transmission) says of the moment she was told she had contracted HIV:
I saw a specialist and he laid down the facts. I said, ‘When am I dying? When does this mean?’ I had no idea of what it meant to have HIV in 2012. I assumed it was game over.
He said, ‘Look, it’s a really manageable chronic illness. You take a couple of pills a day. People live next to normal lives’. And that’s when I thought, ‘OK, life does continue’.
As Abby discovered, a diagnosis of HIV is no longer a death sentence.
Over the last 30 years the development of retrovirals, combined in this country with our world class universal health care system Medicare and our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme have meant the vast majority of Australians with HIV have been able to access the health care they need to ensure they will not go on to develop AIDS.
The approval under Minister Tanya Plibersek of the revolutionary on-the-spot rapid HIV pin prick test has enabled people newly infected with HIV to quickly access that treatment, and reduce the risk of infecting others.
Most people who now contract HIV in this country, like Abby, will be able to successfully manage their condition and remain relatively healthy for the rest of their lives.
But while we have come such a long way in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, sadly, some things have not changed nearly enough.
As Abby goes on to say:
HIV is unlike any illness in that it has this hideous stigma attached to it. You don’t see that with anything else. And that is what people are concerned about and that is the most damaging part of the virus, to be honest. The treatment is manageable, but the stigma is huge.
Just over a decade ago, it was hoped we were on the brink of zero new HIV infections.
Then, infection rates started to rise again and have now levelled off at just over 1,000 a year, with virtually no change for three years now.
While there is some relief that the surge in new HIV cases that began around a decade ago appears to have been capped, it is obviously deeply disappointing to see the return of a disease that many had hoped—even predicted—would be eliminated by now.
Clearly, complacency has set in, with many Australians obviously believing the great success we had in previous decades in dramatically reducing the numbers of Australians with HIV meant that HIV-AIDS was no longer the threat it had once been and that precautions could be abandoned.
All Australians must continue to be made aware that HIV remains a very serious threat and that the transmission of HIV can only be halted by safe sex practices and through harm minimisation with intravenous drug users.
While absolutely nothing will ever take the place of prevention, in the meantime the PrEP pharmaceuticals do offer the hope of a daily drug that can help prevent the vast majority of new infections.
This year’s ALP national conference to specifically back the introduction of PrEP in our national platform and I warmly welcome the decision of the New South Wales and Victorian Government to expand access to clinical trials of PrEP while the drug undergoes evaluation here by the TGA. .
We must redouble our efforts to educate all Australians about the risk of HIV-AIDS and to work together to eradicate this terrible disease, while supporting those who continue to live with HIV and ensuring they remain free from discrimination.
Our aim must remain, absolutely, as it has been in the global World AIDS Day theme for the past five years: zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, zero AIDS-related deaths.