Australia's HIV infection rate has surged by 41 percent between 2000 and 2005, and the increase is being seen predominantly among gay men. The government, reacting to claims that it has been negligent in the area of disease prevention, is planning a multi-million dollar education campaign. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.
About 900 people are now contracting HIV every year in Australia. That is relatively small by international standards, but it is a large jump in percentage terms, and sharp increases in infection rates are being reported in almost every part of the country.
Figures released this week show that between 2000 and 2005, annual infections rose by more than 40 percent nationwide. Sustained increases have been registered in every Australian state except New South Wales.
States such as Victoria are reporting infection rates close to those registered during the epidemic's peak in the 1980's.
Geoff Honnor, a gay man who was diagnosed with HIV 12 years ago, says that with the advent of anti-AIDS drugs, some of the fear of HIV has disappeared among younger gay men.
"What's changed is basically is that HIV has moved from being a fatal kind of prognosis to being a chronic manageable disease," he explained, "and I think that gay men have adjusted their risk assessment accordingl. Lots of other things factor in, but there's no doubt that the huge seismic shift in the way that HIV impacts on lives has actually meant that people have actually begun to balance HIV differently when they're making risk assessments."
The federal government in Canberra, which rejects criticism that it has not done enough to prevent the increase in infections, is in the midst of planning a new education campaign that will target young homosexuals.
Ironically, the only part of the country to see a recent drop in infections is New South Wales, the country's most populous state. The state capital, Sydney, is home to the country's largest gay community.
Experts say part of the success lies in highly specific campaigns targeting particular groups of people within the gay community.
In addition, rates of infection among drug users have fallen as a result of programs to supply clean needles, while preventative measures such as education have seen HIV rates decrease among sex workers.