A LEADING Perth physician says increasing rates of HIV diagnosis in WA shows more people need to understand infection risks and be tested for the virus.
Last year, a record 125 people in WA were diagnosed with HIV – the third consecutive year the number of new diagnoses was more than 100.
Royal Perth Hospital Department of Immunology physician David Nolan said the diagnosis rate was higher than it was in the 1980s.
“In 1986, when we first started testing and picking up diagnoses, there were 95 new cases in Western Australia.
The rates stabilised, and then plummeted after 1996 when new effective treatments became available, down to the lowest level of 34 new cases in 1999,” he said.
“Since 2005, there has been a steady rise and the 2012 figures are the highest on record with no sign of slowing in 2013,” he said.
Dr Nolan said the increase was due to a variety of factors, such as migration, travel, online forums facilitating sexual encounters, but also because of a rise in heterosexual men and women being diagnosed.
The diagnoses accounted for more than half of all new cases in 2012.
"This includes men and women of all ages, from adolescents through to a new population that has just emerged in the last one to two years of heterosexual men, who are getting diagnosed in their 50s and 60s and even 70s,” he said.
“They are in some ways a difficult group to reach because they don’t perceive they are at risk. For that reason, they can be the ones that present with very severe infections due to immune deficiency.”
Dr Nolan said modern treatments were effective at reducing the toll the virus took on the immune system, but there was still no cure.
“There is a realistic expectation of normal life expectancy among those who are diagnosed and commenced on treatment before their immune system becomes damaged.
"We’ve come a long way from the days when HIV was viewed as a killer disease.”
“But HIV is a virus that replicates very fast and it mutates very readily as well. It is therefore very important that the medications are taken without missing doses, so the virus doesn't get a chance to become resistant to the medications you are taking.”
Dr Nolan said the treatments helped reduce the chance of passing on the infection, but there were no guarantees.
“We can’t get rid of that problem unless we actually get a focus on getting people diagnosed earlier.”
He said to do this, sexually transmitted infections and HIV tests needed to be normalised.
“Testing should be advocated for anyone entering a new relationship, or who has casual sexual contacts, with no stigma associated with it.”