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HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that attacks the human immune system. The immune system stops disease and infections in the body. HIV is a treatable chronic condition.

Someone can live with HIV for many years without becoming ill or showing symptoms. HIV can only be diagnosed by a blood test. Left untreated, HIV remains in the body damaging the immune system, eventually leaving the person vulnerable to diseases and infections that their body would normally be able to fight off. Also, without treatment, the person remains infectious, meaning they can pass on the virus to others.

Successful medications are available to treat HIV. Starting and maintaining HIV medication treatment reduces the impact of HIV on a person’s health and can prevent HIV from passing to another person.

HIV IN AUSTRALIA

  • In Australia, 27,545 people were estimated to be HIV positive at the end of 2017. Approximately 2,900 people were unaware they were HIV positive.
  • The number of HIV notifications newly diagnosed in Australia dropped to 937 cases in 2017, a reduction of 10% from the previous 5 years average. 
  • In 2018 a new low of 835 HIV diagnoses had been recorded, a drop of 23% from the 5-year average. This reduction has occurred among gay and bisexual men, with no change among heterosexuals or drug users.* Kirby Institute
  • The main route of HIV transmission in Australia continues to be sexual contact between men, which accounted for 63% of notifications in 2017, a further 25% of cases were attributed to heterosexual sex, 6% to sexual contact between men and injecting drug use, and 3% to injecting drug use only.
  • In 2017, there was a 42% drop in newly acquired HIV notifications among men who have sex with men, compared to the average of the previous 5 years. This has resulted from the roll-out of PrEP.
  • By December 2018 it was estimated there are 18,500 gay or bisexual men taking PrEP regularly to prevent HIV. *Kirby Institute
  • Approximately 8% of all gay and bisexual men in Australia are HIV positive.
  • In Australia, 73% of all HIV positive people have an undetectable viral load and cannot transmit HIV to their sexual partners.
  • In newly acquired infections, the proportion of late HIV diagnosis increased to 36% in 2017 from 28% in 2015. These people were likely to have been living with HIV for at least four years without being tested.
  • Over the 10 years to 2017 late diagnoses has been highest among people born in high prevalence countries, or whose partners are from high prevalence countries.
  • Based on 38 cases, the age-standardised rate of HIV notification in 2015 among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was more than double the rate in the Australian-born nonIndigenous population (6.8 versus 3.1 per 100 000).

Source: Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, 2019, except where noted, by Kirby Institute, 2019.

WHAT IS AIDS?

In Australia, almost all people living with HIV are being successfully treated with medication. If a person living with HIV is not receiving treatment, they may start developing a number of illnesses due to damage by the virus to their immune system. When this occurs, their condition is considered to have progressed to AIDS or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. That is, AIDS is a collection of recognised illnesses.

HIV must be present for a person to develop AIDS. With access to effective treatments, people living with HIV are able to live long and healthy lives. It is now rare for people in Australia to be classified as having AIDS or to pass away from AIDS-defining illness.

HOW IS HIV TRANSMITTED?

HIV cannot be transmitted through contact such as kissing, spitting, sharing food and drink, or household utensils.

A number of conditions must be met for HIV to be transmitted.

1. Source of HIV infection. Someone has to be HIV positive for the virus to be transmitted. If the virus is suppressed by HIV medications, it cannot be transmitted.

2. Transmission path to the bloodstream of an uninfected (HIV negative) person. Unprotected sexual contact or sharing drug-injecting equipment are the most common routes of HIV transmission. HIV cannot easily survive outside of the body so it cannot be contracted from dried blood or body fluids.

3. A sufficient amount of HIV must enter the blood of an uninfected person. HIV can only be transmitted via blood, semen, vaginal fluid or breast milk. If insufficient HIV enters the bloodstream, the transmission of HIV infection will not occur.

HIV transmission cannot take place unless all of these conditions are present.

When someone becomes HIV positive, some people can experience a short ‘seroconversion’ illness, between two and six weeks after becoming infected. However, these symptoms are common in other illnesses and so may not be remarkable at the time. Only an HIV blood test can determine if you are HIV positive.

If you think that you have been exposed to HIV in the last 72 hours – you may be able to prevent HIV infection. Find out more about PEP here.

PREVENTING HIV TRANSMISSION

HIV transmission can be stopped or reduced by limiting the amount of HIV a person is exposed to. Stopping HIV is not just the responsibility of the person living with HIV, but of all people having sex, or participating in other activities where HIV could happen.

There are some simple ways to reduce the risk of HIV transmission:

Consistently using condoms with water-based lube for vaginal and anal sex is one of the easiest ways to stop HIV transmission, as well as most other STIs. They stop semen, vaginal fluids and blood from being shared during sex. Oral sex has a very low risk for HIV transmission. You can purchase a range of safe sex products from the AIDS Action Council. Check out our list of safe sex products or contact us for more information.

Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) is preventive medication provided after someone has had a high-risk exposure to HIV. It is most effective when provided within 72 hours of the risk incident. PEP can be accessed from Canberra and Calvary Hospital Emergency Departments 24hours and Canberra Sexual Health Centre during operating hours. You can find out more information about PEP here.

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) is a preventive medication that can be taken prior to HIV exposure to stop transmission. PrEP is taken daily and is available with a prescription under PBS. PrEP is highly effective for HIV prevention but does not protect against other STIs. You can find out more about PrEP here.

Undetectable Viral Load (UVL) refers to an HIV positive person who is on successful medications, where HIV is fully suppressed in their body. When an HIV positive person maintains UVL continuously, they cannot transmit the virus to their sexual partners. Undetectable is Untransmissable (U=U) is confirmed by years of research as an effective prevention method.

To find out more about how to reduce HIV transmission as a gay or bisexual man, check out endinghiv.org.au

Safer Injecting means ensuring that people do not share injecting equipment. This includes syringes, spoons, filters, water, water containers and tourniquets. Sterile equipment for injecting drugs is freely available through the ACT’s needle and syringe exchange program.

Infection control in workplaces and the community help to reduce HIV transmission and other blood-borne viruses. Professional standard guidelines are effective in preventing HIV by covering the use of sterile equipment and disposal for clinical services, tattooing and piercing, as well as standard operating procedures for body fluid spills and potential exposure. More information can be found in the National Code of Work-Related Exposure to Hepatitis and HIV here.

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