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New HIV cases in Australia surged more than 40% from 2000 to 2005, according to study results released Thursday, prompting fears that drug treatment advances are making people lax about practicing safe sex.
The annual survey report, issued by the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, found that new HIV infections reported in Australia rose from 656 in 2000 to 930 in 2005--a 41% leap. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.
Gay men accounted for about 70% of the new cases. Heterosexuals made up 19%, while intravenous drug users and unknown transmission paths accounted for the rest.
According to the report, new infections hit an all-time high of about 1,700 in 1984, then declined steadily through the late 1990s. But in 2000, the trend apparently reversed. And it's not just HIV that's on the rise in Australia. Around 41,300 new cases of the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia were reported in 2005, a fourfold increase over 1995. New gonorrhea cases have almost doubled in the past decade, the study said.
"It's very possible that people are just not prioritizing safe sex as they maybe used to in the very serious HIV/AIDS era" of the late 1980s and early '90s, said the organizations's deputy director, John Kaldor. "It might be here that improvements in HIV treatments have lessened the motivation for people to protect themselves sexually."
Australia has about 15,000 people living with HIV, and around 70% are being treated with life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs, the study found.
Don Baxter, executive director of the Australia Federation of AIDS Organizations, said widespread use of the drugs--which have been found to slow the progression of HIV to AIDS--could be a factor behind the recent rise, especially among gay men. "The place of HIV in gay men's lives has receded enormously from where it was because they and their friends have stopped dying," he said. "So the level of attention to it is much reduced." He said so-called "treatment optimism" could make some people more likely to take risks or "at least rationalize having unprotected sex."
Australia had 22,361 reported cases of HIV as of the end of 2005. A total of 9,872 people have been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, and about 6,700 have died, the report said.
The National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, an independent medical research institution, collaborates with the government on setting strategy to combat the spread of AIDS. (Meraiah Foley, AP)