Hepatitis cure working, HIV stable but sexually transmitted infections (STIs) sharply on the rise

Published this week, the Kirby Institute’s latest Annual Surveillance Report on HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible Infections in Australia reveals that between March and December 2016, an estimated 30,343 people were cured of hepatitis C following treatment with new direct-acting antiviral therapy.

Responding to the Kirby Institute’s report, Hepatitis Australia’s Acting CEO Kevin Marriott says Australia needs to capitalise on this early success to ensure all Australians affected by viral hepatitis have access to effective treatment and care.

“As incredible as it is that more than 30,000 Australians have been treated for hepatitis C, there are still 200,000 Australians living with the virus who are at risk of serious liver disease,” he said.

“Australia is a leader in the global response to hepatitis C, but even with cures readily available, the elimination of hepatitis C as a public health threat by 2030 is not guaranteed.

“In 2017, demand for these medical miracles has fallen sharply. A concerted effort is needed to break down the barriers to more Australians speaking to their GP about hepatitis C treatment.”

The Kirby data also reveals that over the past five years, hepatitis-B diagnoses have declined by 27 per cent in people aged less than 25 years, largely due to infant and adolescent vaccination programs.

Mr Marriott says that the success of hepatitis-B vaccination is good news, but that Australia is still failing to diagnose and treat hepatitis B effectively.

Only 63 per cent of the estimated 230,000 people living with chronic hepatitis B in Australia have been diagnosed, and only a third are having their hepatitis B regularly monitored.

Hepatitis Australia has published a ‘roadmap’ to eliminating viral hepatitis in Australia, available at www.hepatitisaustralia.com, National Infoline: 1800 437 222.

Another key finding of the Kirby Institute report is that gonorrhoea and syphilis diagnoses are increasing in Australia.

The latest data shows that gonorrhoea has increased by 63 per cent during the past five years, with particular rises among young heterosexual people in major cities.

“Until recently, gonorrhoea had been uncommon in young heterosexual people living in major cities – but rising rates in this group highlight the need for initiatives to raise awareness among clinicians and young people about the importance of testing,” said Associate Professor Rebecca Guy, Head of the Surveillance, Evaluation and Research Program at the Kirby Institute in Sydney. “With the national strategies for HIV, hepatitis and STIs up for review, reducing STIs in young people will be an important target.”

Among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, chlamydia and gonorrhoea rates were three and seven times higher, respectively, than in the non-indigenous population, and the gaps were greater in regional and remote areas. Since 2011, there has been a resurgence of infectious syphilis among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in regional and remote areas of Northern Australia.

The report shows that HIV diagnoses have remained stable in Australia for the past five years, with 1,013 new diagnoses in 2016.

Associate Professor Guy says these results are due to high levels of testing and treatment in Australia. “We’re seeing increased uptake of HIV testing, particularly among gay and bisexual men, who are the population most affected by HIV in Australia,” she said. “It is also encouraging that 86 per cent of people diagnosed with HIV were on treatment in 2016.”

However, gaps in testing remain, particularly among heterosexual people, where one in five HIV diagnoses occurs. Nearly half of heterosexual people diagnosed with HIV were diagnosed late, meaning they were likely to have acquired HIV at least four years before diagnosis.

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