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Australian researchers announce HIV infection breakthrough

Health & Science
 Safety Sam, The Condom Man, distributes free condoms on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. [AFP]

Researchers say the central districts in Sydney are close to becoming the first place in the world to reach the U.N.'s target for ending transmission of HIV. The city was once at the heart of Australia's HIV epidemic but new infections among gay men have fallen by 88% between 2010 and 2022. The U.N.'s goal is a 90% reduction in cases by 2030.

In 1987, the 'Grim Reaper' advert warned Australians about the march of a deadly virus.

"At first, only gays and IV drug users were being killed by AIDS," the TV spots said, "but now we know everyone one of us could be devastated by it."

HIV attacks the body's immune system, and if not treated, can lead to AIDS.

In the central parts of Sydney, Australia's biggest city, thousands of gay men died in the 1980s and '90s.

In remarkable turnaround, researchers say that only 11 new HIV cases were recorded in central Sydney last year.

Almost all HIV-positive people in Australia are on antiretroviral drugs. They suppress the level of the virus in the blood, reducing the risk of sexual transmission. There's also the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis. These are preventative medicines taken by people who don't have HIV to lower their chance of infection.

Gay men make up about 20% of the male population in inner Sydney, and they represent most of the city's HIV cases.

Hope rekindled as scientists announce possible Aids vaccine

The research confirming the change in HIV rates in Sydney was presented to the International AIDS Society's HIV science conference being held in the Queensland city of Brisbane by Andrew Grulich, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corp's 7.30 program earlier this month that he's seen HIV gradually being conquered over his academic career.

"My life in research has been over that period," Grulich said. "So, it has been terrible, and it has been extraordinary and now it is getting close to wonderful, really, with the possibility that we have."

However, rates of infection have fallen by only a third in some outer Sydney suburbs, where public health awareness, access to medical treatments and testing new cases are more limited.

Jane Costello, the chief executive officer of Positive Life, an organization that helps people living with HIV, told VOA about some groups still being left behind.

"Overseas-born men who have sex with men, heterosexual populations, people from culturally and linguistically-diverse backgrounds and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people," she said. "So, it is a question of equity as well."

The AIDS conference in Brisbane has heard that parts of the United Kingdom and Western Europe have also seen rapid drops in new HIV cases. But few places, if any, can rival Sydney's fall in infections of almost 90% over the past decade.

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