Standing up for Canberra

World Aids Day 2013

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this subject and I thank the member for Higgins for this motion. I can recall a time—it seems not so long ago—when the threat and fear of AIDS gripped this nation. It was a great unknown terror. Nobody knew what it was or what it meant other than certain death. It was an epidemic. In Melbourne, where I was living, it seemed that almost every person my age, including me, had lost a friend or loved one to this disease. The result of this fear, this trauma, this lived experience was that people became informed, they became vigilant and they protected themselves. In the eighties my sister, who was then a scientist and is now a winemaker, worked in AIDS research—really, in the very early days of it. I can remember talking to my sister about her work. She went from being totally in the dark about this disease to knowing more and understanding more so that, ultimately, we would be able to control it.

Today the story of AIDS is a totally different one. Most importantly, a diagnosis of HIV is no longer the death sentence that it once was. Thanks to the incredible work of scientists, researchers and medical professionals like my sister, HIV-AIDS can now be not only prevented but treated. HIV is now a manageable infection, no longer a gradual progression to AIDS and then death. Treatments not only control the virus but also reduce infectiousness.

The progress that has been made in tackling this disease in what seems like a relatively short couple of decades is nothing short of remarkable. However, there seems to have been an unintended flipside to this progress. As treatment has progressed, fear has subsided—and so too, it would seem, has our vigilance. I was alarmed to read last week that there has been a 10 per cent increase in reported HIV cases in Australia during the last year. Associate Professor Paul Sendziuk, an expert on the history of HIV-AIDS from the University of Adelaide, points to the introduction of meet-up apps on phones, which make it easier for people to have casual sex with strangers, and the rise in the use of recreational drugs, which get people into euphoric states and lower their inhibitions, as two possible factors in the increase. He calls social media 'a double edged sword'. He says that, on the plus side, social media is being used by HIV educators in really innovative ways to reach people who might not otherwise get messages about AIDS. However, it also presents a real challenge in that it allows people to hook up for anonymous sex more easily. HIV might be the unintended consequence of the new ways Australia's young people are socialising. The trend in the use of steroids has also seen a new generation of Australians injecting drugs, which may also have resulted in this increase in HIV.

Yesterday was the 26th annual World AIDS Day. The global theme this year is 'Getting to Zero'—zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS related deaths. The elimination of HIV is something that the UN Secretary-General's special envoy for AIDS believes is achievable in the Asia-Pacific region within the next 15 years. However, it will only be achieved if we are vigilant, if we avoid complacency. And I believe it is the responsibility of those of us who lived through the birth of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in this country to keep the younger generations informed: always practise safe sex; do not share syringes or other personal items such as razors; and get tested regularly.

HIV can affect anyone. There is no vaccine or cure for HIV or AIDS. By being informed about how HIV is transmitted and how to protect ourselves and others, we can enjoy life with safer sex and prevent the spread of HIV—an important and timely message this World AIDS Day. We must also be forever vigilant, which is why the Abbott government's decision to de-fund the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council is so alarming. From 2002 to 2006, ADCA's president was Neal Blewett, who played an active, pivotal role in combating AIDS. As a result, ADCA was at the forefront of improving Australia's understanding of blood-borne diseases and the role of safe injection, and it played a critical role in bringing together a cohesive cross-sectoral approach to the issue. So, in commending the member for Higgins for the motion, I also ask her to advocate for the reinstatement of funding for ADCA so it can continue to do great work on preventing HIV-AIDS in Australia.

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