Effective therapies mean the number of people progressing to AIDS is lower than ever, but HIV is still spreading
Key researchers and stakeholders have announced that AIDS progress in Australia is “tremendous” and better than ever. But while it has become uncommon, the epidemic is not over.
“Australia’s progress against AIDS is tremendous. We don’t have to worry that HIV will inevitably lead to illness and death,” says Darryl O’Donnell, CEO of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO).
“But the job isn’t done. Too many people are still being diagnosed with HIV, and often they’re being diagnosed much later than we’d like,” he adds.
There are over 1,000 new HIV diagnoses each year, a number that is about 30% higher than a decade ago, says Professor Andrew Grulich from UNSW’s HIV Epidemiology and Prevention Program.
However, new HIV prevention technologies are providing a realistic chance of driving these infections down in the next few years, including the pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) Truvada to high-risk gay men, says Professor Grulich.
To achieve these goals the drug needs to be funded by the PBS, he emphasises.
“If we invest in PrEP, HIV testing, and early HIV treatment, we can work towards the virtual elimination of HIV by 2020.”
Through increased community pharmacy accessibility of HIV and HCV medicines, pharmacists have been able to better engage with HIV-diagnosed patients, says researcher Dr Esther Lau, from Queensland University of Technology’s Faculty of Health.
More broadly, this gives pharmacists the opportunity to have conversations with people about health promotion and health education, including safe sex practices, safe injecting practices and adherence with prescribed therapy, she says.
“It’s a very good thing that we are reducing the progression from HIV to AIDS through effective treatment. However, the high number of people still getting diagnosed with HIV means preventative healthcare and public health campaigns around safe practices e.g. safe sex, safe injecting still need to be continued,” says Dr Lau, a pharmacist and academic.
“This is important to effectively overcome the potential apathy that has arisen from effective treatment because people now view HIV is a chronic condition that can be managed. Healthcare professionals must remain vigilant if we are to drive down HIV infections.”
There is also future potential for pharmacists in collaboration with other healthcare professionals to be more involved in PEP and PrEP supply and point-of-care HIV testing, she says.
Prompt HIV testing is vital as many people are diagnosed with HIV late.
According to UNSW’s Professor Susan Kippax about 15% of people with HIV in Australia have not been tested and diagnosed.
People who are diagnosed are encouraged to start treatment immediately, which stops the disease from developing into AIDS.
While AIDS cases still develop in the undiagnosed group, virtually all can be quickly and effectively treated once the disease is discovered, says Professor Kippax.