Record number of Kiwis diagnosed with HIV

by Joanna MacKenzie / 31 May, 2017
Most of those diagnosed last year were men. Photo / 123RF.com

Experts are puzzled as to why the numbers are going up.

More people were diagnosed with HIV in New Zealand last year than in any year since records began in 1985.

The data from AIDs Epidemiology Group released today showed 244 people were diagnosed with HIV in 2016, up 20 from the previous year.

Of last year's newly diagnosed cases, 217 were men and 27 were women.

AIDS Foundation executive director Jason Myers said the rise was disappointing - but not unexpected.

"We know that HIV has been rising in New Zealand since 2011 and not much is changing in terms of the tools that exist being made available to enable us to turn that trend around."

The way to reduce infection rates was a combination of antiretroviral and prophylactic drugs as well as education, he said.

"Maintaining condom use, getting pre-exposure prophylaxis into the hands of people who need it and then finding and treating undiagnosed HIV infection.

"That really holds the potential to slow this trend, halt it, reverse it and ultimately end HIV transmission," he said.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis includes drugs that help prevent people who are at substantial risk of contracting the infection from getting it.

Peter Saxton from Auckland University's Gay Men's Sexual Health Research Group agreed more should be spent on prevention.

He said HIV drugs were amazing, but extremely costly.

"For every 20 year old infected with HIV, it's going to cost the tax payer around $800,000 over their lifetime. Whereas if you front load that investment into HIV prevention, and in surveys that can help improve prevention, it's incredibly good value for money."

Dr Saxton said the increase in the number diagnosed was particularly frustrating because the disease could be easily stopped.

"We know that we need to keep condom use levels stable, we need to increase the level of HIV testing, we need to promptly offer HIV treatment for people diagnosed."

"We also need to offer HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis to the small number of individuals who are unable to sustain condom use or are at very high risk."

But Dr Saxton said the vital tool in the fight against HIV was knowing more about people's behaviour.

"The HIV data released today tells us what's happening in the epidemic and that it's increasing. What we lack is why."

"Behavioural data on why it's going up, why we're seeing an increase in risk and in whom we're seeing an increased risk is incredibly important right now," he said.

Mark Fisher from the HIV support group, Body Positive, said fear was still a big factor putting people off getting themselves tested.

If testing was a routine part of certain health checks, it would stop many people slipping through the cracks, he said.

"Doctors aren't offering the tests to people because they don't think they're in a risk category and so they won't say maybe you need an HIV test whereas in reality it should just be a routine thing."

"It shouldn't be a judgement call ... it should just be a standard routine test that you do in emergency settings," he said.

The Ministry of Health said while it recognised the significant impact the illness has, the prevalence of HIV infection in the general population remained very low.

It said it would consider the new figures and work with other agencies on improving outcomes.

This article was originally published by RNZ.

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