Changing face of HIV in WA

Clinical immunologist and UWA researcher Martyn French said while there had been a slight rise in the number of HIV diagnoses in WA in the past few years, the real change was in patient backgrounds.

‘We are seeing HIV in men who have sex with men and heterosexual people, including those who have come to Australia as migrants and refugees, as well as people who have acquired an infection through heterosexual relationships in south east Asia,’ he said.

Department of Health statistics show that in WA 118 new HIV diagnoses were reported last year, a slight decrease from a peak in 2012 when 121 new cases were reported.

Last year, 52 heterosexual men and women were diagnosed with HIV, while 55 homosexual or bisexual men were diagnosed.

Clinical nurse specialist Allison Cain and clinical nurse Leah Williams, who work in immunology at RPH, both said the age of people affected had also changed, with older women and men unaware of the risks of not using condoms to protect against HIV.

‘We are getting an older generation coming through with a very limited understanding of HIV,’ Ms Williams said.

Ms Cain said the outcomes for people with HIV were a lot better than in the 1980s when she first started working with HIV positive patients, many of whom queued to be a part of drug trials after initial medications stopped being effective.

‘Going back 20 years, there was nothing I could say other than to support patients through death and dying,’ she said.

‘Nowadays they are going to live to an old age because the treatments are fantastic.’

Ms Williams said the stigma surrounding HIV was a concern for many patients, particularly immigrants who could be ostracised from their communities after disclosing their HIV positive diagnosis.

Dr French, who started working in the field almost 30 years ago, predicted research around the world would contribute to finding a HIV cure, including work he is doing on antibodies that control the infection.

‘It is now well recognised that there about 1 per cent of people who are actually able to control HIV infection without treatment,’ he said.

‘It is clear that these people are able to make an immune response against the virus that allows them to naturally control it. If we can understand how they do it, we can produce those immune responses with vaccines that are able to prevent or treat the infection.’

Ms Williams said increased education and testing for HIV would improve outcomes for patients and lessen the chance of people acquiring the infection.