Silent HIV epidemic expanding in New Zealand: expert

WELLINGTON — New Zealand has lost its world-leading status in the fight against HIV/AIDS with a record rise last year in diagnosed cases of the world’s most dangerous infectious disease, an expert said Thursday.

Last year’s increase was the fourth in a row — many of them recent infections — and more New Zealanders than ever before were living with HIV, said University of Auckland researcher Peter Saxton.

Last year, 224 people were diagnosed with HIV in New Zealand, with 109 of those having been infected in New Zealand, according to the New Zealand AIDS Foundation.

The figure was up from 217 diagnosed in 2014.

Treatment for HIV was effective, but expenditure on anti-retrovirals was soaring, doubling in the last six years to 32.8 million NZ dollars (USD23.29 million) this year, said Saxton.

“Given these statistics, it’s hard to argue that we have the upper hand,” Saxton said in a statement.

“Our escalating epidemic is inexcusable and it risks squandering our proud historical record. When New Zealand saw the first cases more than 30 years ago, the country responded boldly.”

Interventions were based on evidence and agreed on rational policies, while moralism was rejected in favor of science and cooperation.

“The result was an international success story,” said Saxton.

New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to report a decline in AIDS, and had one of the lowest rates of HIV diagnoses in gay and bisexual men internationally.

Effective treatments that allowed people living with HIV to expect a near-normal lifespan if diagnosed early were also diminishing HIV’s visibility and reducing support for public health efforts at all levels of society and government.

“Meanwhile, Internet dating is connecting potential sexual partners like never before and there are concerns that drug-use, particularly methamphetamine, is facilitating HIV transmission through unprotected sex,” said Saxton.

“Add stigma to the mix and HIV has become a silent and growing epidemic,” he said.

“To make matters worse, New Zealand has a disintegrating HIV and sexual health workforce badly in need of re-investment.”

A return to a partnership approach could see New Zealand virtually eliminate HIV transmission within 15 years.

“We need to evolve and modernize our own responses just as HIV has evolved from a frightening disease in the 1980s to a silent, expanding and expensive epidemic today,” he said. PNA/