World AIDS Day

1 December 2018

Each year, World AIDS Day presents an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the global HIV response, as well as examine challenges and our next steps. It is an opportunity to take the time to look further than simply our own sector and community, and speak to a broader audience about the challenges faced in responding to the HIV epidemic both here in Australia and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Earlier this year, ASHM testified to the Commonwealth’s Inquiry into the strategic effectiveness and outcomes of Australia’s aid program in the Indo-Pacific and our role in supporting Australia’s regional interests. As technical experts in clinical workforce development for HIV, viral hepatitis and sexual health within the region, we are in a position to understand what a difference Australia’s investment in aid makes to the millions in our region at risk of or living with HIV. We work closely with local health systems and personnel to strengthen their capacity to respond to the epidemic.

While the history of HIV and AIDS in Australia is filled with trauma and loss, working in the region reminds us that in many ways we have also been extremely lucky. Over the 35 years of Australia’s HIV epidemic we have seen the power of a coordinated response from community, clinicians, researchers and government to help bring us to where we are today.

But there is still much work to be done in the Indo-Pacific region to achieve the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets. The withdrawal of government funding from HIV programs in Papua New Guinea during 2016–2017 created instability for individuals, organisations, programs and the national HIV agenda. The rapid roll-out of cuts compromised patient welfare and placed immense burdens on remaining systems to service increased patient loads. Unless future budget amendments to Australia’s aid programme are implemented strategically and with planning, the risk to individual and community health, especially for women and girls, will once again be significant.

Despite these setbacks, there is also hope. For example, the recent Undetectable = Untransmittable (or U=U) movement is a major advance in HIV management, based on findings from three key studies that demonstrate how effectively antiretroviral therapy prevents sexual transmission of HIV. Support for the U=U approach by Australia’s aid program has the potential to improve the health, wellbeing and productivity of people living with HIV, and to increase biomedical prevention of HIV transmission within the region.

This World AIDS Day, we should take the opportunity to harness our position within the region as committed leaders in the response to the HIV epidemic. Embracing the spirit of respectful collaboration that has characterised our movement in Australia from the beginning, we can make a real difference to the lives of our regional neighbours also grappling with the challenges of HIV.

 

Alexis Apostolellis
ASHM Chief Executive Officer