What is HIV?
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that weakens the immune system. It attacks and takes over immune cells, using them to reproduce itself. Infected cells can be found in many parts of the body and in body fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk.
AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a serious weakening of the body’s immune system caused by HIV. When an HIV positive person’s immune cells (CD4 cells) drop below a certain level, they can be vulnerable to infections that their body would normally fight off.
HIV, not AIDS, is transmitted between people.
HIV in Victoria
Victoria has the second-largest HIV epidemic in Australia, behind New South Wales. As of the end of 2010, there are approximately 5722 people with HIV living in this state.
- In 2011, there were approximately 280 new HIV diagnoses made in Victoria.
- 259 were men, 20 women and 1 transgender.
- 223 of these infections occurred through homosexual contact and 42 through heterosexual contact.
- The incidence of HIV transmission through injecting drug use was 0 in 2010.
Annual rates of new HIV infections in Victoria dropped from a peak in 1985 (over 500 cases) to a low in 1999 (141 cases). Since then the rate has climbed again and evened out at roughly 260 cases each year from 2006 to 2009 with a significant drop to 228 cases in 2010. AIDS diagnoses peaked from 1992 to 1995 (180 cases). New treatments available since the mid-1990s have lead to a drop to around 50 annual cases.
HIV is a notifiable disease which means that the Department of Health is notified of all new HIV diagnoses. Statistics on HIV and AIDS are available from the Victorian HIV Surveillance Data on the Victorian Department of Health website.
HIV in Australia
Nationally, 80% of HIV diagnoses are men who have sex with men. Cities with bigger communities of men who have sex with men have higher infection rates. Heterosexual infection rates vary. For example, rates have stayed low in South Australia but have climbed to about 50% of all notifications in Western Australia.
The rate of new HIV infections in Australia peaked in 1987 then slowly dropped till 1999. It then climbed and evened out in 2006.
The national pattern of AIDS diagnoses is similar to Victoria. Statistics are available from the National HIV Surveillance Data on the Kirby Institute website.
HIV around the world
The size and nature of the HIV epidemic varies greatly from country to country. In many western countries, unprotected anal sex between men is the main risk category. However, in sub-Saharan Africa vaginal sex is the predominant transmission avenue, and in China most transmission is through intravenous drug use.
AIDS diagnoses rates also vary, depending on the availability of HIV treatments.
Not all countries have good reporting systems, so data may not be accurate. Statistics are available from UNAIDS: www.unaids.org
In the mid 1990s, effective treatment for HIV infection became available in Australia. HIV is now a manageable infection, with treatment that not only controls the virus in the person but also reduces their infectiousness (though not completely). Treatment means that HIV is no longer a gradual progression to AIDS and then death. However, many people living with HIV still deal with a range of problems and health issues because of their HIV status.
For more information, see ‘HIV Tests & Treatments’, produced by The Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) and the National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS (NAPWA). This publication is available on the AFAO website.
Who is at risk HIV?
Victoria has contained mother to child transmission and infection rates amongst injecting drug users, sex workers and those who receive blood transfusions. Sexual transmission is still the main cause of HIV infection, and unprotected anal sex between men accounts for about 80% of cases. However, transmission through vaginal sex is slowly increasing, though this is often due to being from, or having sex with, someone from a country with a high HIV prevalence.
The most reliable way to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV is to always use a condom during sex, in conjunction with water-based lubricant (petroleum-based lubricants can make condoms break). If injecting drugs, always use a clean syringe, and never share syringes with other users.
For more information about sexual transmission of HIV, see www.vicaids.asn.au/sexual-transmission
For more information about HIV and drug use, and safe injecting, see www.vicaids.asn.au/sex-drugs-and-hivstis
Support and information for those at risk of and those living with HIV
The Victorian AIDS Council / Gay Men’s Health Centre
The Victorian AIDS Council / Gay Men’s Health Centre (VAC/GMHC) works to confront the continuing challenges of the HIV epidemic and, increasingly, the GLBTI community’s broader health concerns.
VAC/GMHC was formed in 1983 as the central part of the Victorian community’s response to HIV. VAC/GMHC is a community organisation, funded primarily to deliver health promotion, care and support to those living with and those at risk of HIV and STIs.
From the beginning, VAC/GMHC has worked in a way that has capitalised on interaction and interdependence with affected individuals and communities and the organisation’s response to the continually changing epidemic has always been in partnership with them.
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