Just What the Doctor Ordered – Timely Action to Prevent New HIV and Hepatitis Infections

The national organisation representing people who inject drugs welcomes the announcement yesterday by the Federal Health Minister, Tanya Plibersek of over $25 million for a new prevention initiatives and research to address increasing rates of blood borne viruses including HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C and sexually transmissible infections (STIs).

“AIVL is very pleased to see that people who inject drugs have been identified by the Rudd Government as a priority population for this important new investment. The Minister has rightly pointed out in making the announcement that Australia has one of the lowest rates of HIV among people who inject drugs in the world but we can never afford to be complacent” stated Ms Annie Madden, AIVL Executive Officer.

Research from overseas, including from high and middle income countries have shown what can happen to rates of HIV infection if we reduce people’s access to new injecting equipment. In the late 1990’s HIV infection rates among people who inject drugs in Vancouver, Canada increased from less than 5% to almost 30% in only 12 months following disruption to NSP access among some of that city’s poorest and most marginalised drug users.

“It is so important that we maintain our current low rates of HIV among drug users in Australia because once HIV increases among people who inject drugs it can take decades for rates to decline. We are seeing some signs of increases in HIV infection rates among certain groups of people who inject drugs in Australia including among Aboriginal drug users. In this context, new funding to expand NSP in regional and rural Australia is particularly welcome news. We haven’t seen significant new investment in NSP at the federal level for some time but increases in HIV infections and the ongoing struggle to reduce new hepatitis C and hepatitis B infections among people who inject drugs makes the Minister’s announcement yesterday a very timely intervention for our community” said Ms Madden.

There are over 220,000 people already living with chronic hepatitis C in Australia, the vast majority of who are or have been injecting drug users. Recent research among people accessing NSPs in Australia suggests we have seen a decline in hepatitis C prevalence from 62% in 2007 to 53% in 2011.1 While this is good news and indicates positive uptake of hepatitis C prevention peer education, it needs to be viewed against the backdrop of continued very high rates of new hepatitis C infections of almost 10,000 per year – over 90% of which are among current injectors. People who inject drugs, also account for almost half of all new hepatitis B infections in Australia.

“The research evidence tells us that NSP and peer education run by and for drug users are not only highly cost-effective but when done in combination they work, and most importantly of all, they save lives! Hepatitis C and hepatitis B can lead to serious liver disease and liver cancer without treatment and monitoring. Hepatitis C is now the leading cause of liver transplantation in Australia. But blood borne viruses such as hepatitis C, hepatitis B and HIV are preventable. People who inject drugs do not need to contract blood borne viruses and this timely action by the Federal Government will put the ‘means of prevention’ in the hands of those who need it!” concluded Ms Madden

For more information contact: Annie Madden: (02) 62791600 or 0414628136