Original article published here.
A drug likened to the contraceptive pill for HIV has been credited with the number of new cases contracted in WA falling to a 10-year low.
The overall drop in cases has largely been achieved via a 42 per cent drop in cases of HIV among homosexual men year-on-year.
But authorities are concerned about the prevalence of HIV among heterosexual people, where disease rates have remained steady in the face of the big drop displayed within the gay community.
There were 67 new cases of HIV reported last financial year, down from 91 the previous year. The biggest decrease was in homosexual cases, which fell from 53 to 31.
In contrast, the number of heterosexual cases remained steady at 30, most of which were contracted by men visiting South-East Asia.
The WA Health Department attributed the overall decline to a number of strategies, including access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medications to prevent the HIV infection from developing, improved testing programs and high treatment rates for those with HIV.
PrEP works under a similar concept to oral contraception, where a pill is taken as a precaution rather than as a treatment.
Just ‘another method of protection’
University student Matt Bacon, 25, started using PrEP daily six months ago and said it was widely used among his group of friends.
“Why not take another method of protection against HIV?” Mr Bacon said.
“It’s sort of a good safety net to have.
“It’s important to be responsible for your sexual health, it’s important to test every three months, it’s important to take steps to ensure you’re as safe as you possibly can.”
Mr Bacon said most gay and bisexual men he knew were sexually responsible and the issue was talked about openly.
“Over the last two years it has exploded and exploded very quickly, to the point that on a night out it’s abnormal to not hear someone talk about PrEP,” Mr Bacon said.
“Even in a social setting it’s pretty well discussed and mentioned.
“Even in terms of dating apps and things, it’s infrequent that you wouldn’t know if someone was on PrEP or at least have a conversation around how someone was protecting themselves before you meet up with someone or before you go on a date.”
Belief HIV not a heterosexual disease
WA Aids Council chief executive David Kernohan said while a number of treatment and prevention programs had reduced the rate of HIV, some heterosexual people were still under the wrong impression that the virus did not affect them.
“And that’s one of the things that we’re trying to do, is to get through to the general community that HIV is not just something that affects the LGBT community,” Mr Kernohan said.
“The numbers of straight or heterosexual people within WA that are contracting the virus is fairly high, and so people within the heterosexual community also need to take responsibility and make sure that they’re getting tested for HIV as well.
“Because of that link with same sex attraction, people who identify as heterosexual think it doesn’t affect them.
“But unsafe sexual practices do put them at risk.”
The WA Government launched the PrEP implementation trial in November last year, giving people at risk of HIV free access to the preventative drug.
The drug was also listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) from April 1 this year.
WA Health Minister Roger Cook said the latest figures were a great success story.
“It comes down to the PrEP program, it also comes down to the targeted strategies to raise awareness,” he said.
“And what it means is that people are now talking about this issue.
“So from that perspective we know that it’s out there so people can take better and safer precautions.”
Travelling older men at risk
However, Mr Cook said better precautions still needed to be taken by heterosexual people, particularly those travelling to other countries.
“Where we are still seeing some stubborn numbers is in that over 40-plus males, and they’re primarily as a result of travelling overseas and contracting HIV in other countries,” he said.
“In the gay community, we’re getting that message out there. The level of awareness and level of precaution being shown by people in that community is clearly higher than in the heterosexual community.
“Everyone should take precautions, particularly when they’re travelling to other countries, and we’re now coming towards the Christmas period when people are looking to travel.
“The message is to take care and to make sure you protect yourself if you are going to engage in risky sexual behaviour when you are overseas.”
The Health Department said while PrEP protected a person from HIV transmission, condoms should still be used to prevent against other sexually transmitted infections.