Australian scientists are at the cutting-edge of HIV research and more than ever we need on-going financial support from the Federal Government and from the community to achieve a 30-year quest to find a cure.
By Serkan Ozturk
As this weekend’s Sydney Mardi Gras Parade approaches, one of Australia’s leading medical research and public health organisations, the Burnet Institute, is calling for increased government and philanthropic support to help the continuing search for a HIV cure which is closer than ever thanks to medical and technological breakthroughs over the past few years.
Burnet has made the call for increased funding as it continues the development of VISITECT, which the research group describes as an innovative, low-cost, point-of-care CD4 test. The test, currently being trialled in Zimbabwe, enables CD4+ T-cell levels to be determined quickly and conveniently using a finger-prick blood sample, enabling patients to receive life-saving antiretroviral treatment (ART).
CD4 cells or T-helper cells are a type of white blood cell that fights infection and their count indicates the stage of HIV or AIDS in a patient.
Echoing recent similar warnings by leading HIV expert Bill Whittaker, Burnet director and CEO, Professor Brendan Crabb, said without an increased commitment in funding the significant progress made over the past decade towards finding a cure will stall.
“Australian scientists are at the cutting-edge of HIV research and more than ever we need on-going financial support from the Federal Government and from the community to achieve a 30-year quest to find a cure,” he said.
More than 34 million people around the world currently live with HIV while it claims the lives of more than two million people each year.
Professor Crabb said while more lives are being saved than ever before through use of ART due to improved access and an increase in awareness campaigns a lack of a vaccine or cure has been a major factor in the continued spread among vulnerable populations in the Asia/Pacific region and African countries.
“In many countries of our region, men who have sex with men and people who use drugs are often unable to access HIV services either because of their lack, or from a fear of discrimination and harassment,” he said.
“This contributes to increased spread of infection but also an increased risk of tuberculosis, hepatitis and other infectious diseases.”
In Australia, figures released by the Kirby Institute last year showed that in 2011 the number of people diagnosed with HIV in Australia was 1,137 compared to 1,051 in 2010 – an annual increase of 8.2 per cent.
In response, public health experts, researchers, HIV organisations, sex worker groups and others came together to release the Melbourne Declaration calling on the Federal Government to aim to keep its UN commitments and aim to reduce annual domestic HIV infection rates by 50 per cent by 2015.
Last month, NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner launched a new education program, Ending HIV, aimed at ending the HIV epidemic by 2020. It follows on from her support for the commitments outlined in the NSW HIV Strategy 2012-2015 which plans to reduce HIV transmission among gay men in NSW by 80 per cent over the next 10 years.