Transmission and Treatment of the Human Immunodeficiecy Virus

The number of Australians living with HIV has risen by almost 10,000 cases in the past decade and today there are more than 28,000 registered cases of the virus.

It's been almost three decades since the world was gripped by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

While the introduction of antiretroviral medications in the 1990s meant that HIV was no longer the death sentence it had been the decade prior, it did not mean an end to the spread of the virus.

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, an estimated 4.1 million people worldwide were newly diagnosed with HIV in 2005, bringing the total number of people living with HIV to 38.6 million.

In Australia, the number of newly acquired HIV cases rose by 38 per cent over the past 10 years - from 718 diagnoses in 1999 to 995 in 2008, the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research (NCHECR) has found.


As part of its 2009 Annual Surveillance Report, the NCHECR found that in Australia HIV continues to be transmitted primarily by sexual contact between men.

However, HIV is not a virus transmitted solely between men who have sex with men (MSM) and may be spread by the transfer of bodily fluids from one person to another via:

  • unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex
  • sharing needles, syringes and other injecting equipment
  • blood transfusions in countries that do not screen for HIV
  • pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding, from a mother to a child
  • exposure to HIV-infected blood.

Ethnicity is not a risk-factor for HIV acquisition and the NCHECR report found that there was a similar rate of HIV diagnoses in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous populations. However, there were a higher number of cases attributed to heterosexual contact and the use of injecting equipment in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.


Testing for HIV requires a blood test that may be performed by a doctor or in a community clinic, health centre or sexual health clinic and all HIV tests are available on the Medical Benefits Schedule (MBS).

Australian Federal Law ensures that the results of HIV tests remain confidential and anybody who requests testing for HIV is required to seek pre- and post-test counselling.


While there is no vaccine or cure for HIV, there are a number of treatments available post-exposure and diagnosis.

  1. Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is a 28-day treatment course, that may prevent HIV infection if commenced within three days of potential exposure. National PEP Guidelines are available from the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.
  2. Highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) is the combination of three or more medications belonging to two or more antiretroviral classes. While HAART does not cure HIV, the combination of medication aims to suppress HIV and to restore immune function and can have a significant improvement on quality of life. Currently, 85 per cent of HIV-positive people are using antiretroviral medication, according the the NCHECR.

Man's understanding of the human immunodeficiency virus has come along way since the early 1980s and today people living with HIV, and who have access to HAART, have a similar life expectancy to the HIV-negative population.

However, HAART is not a cure for HIV and the insidous virus continues to spread in Australia and throughout the rest of the world. HAART has also been linked to HIV-associated facial lipoatrophy - the severe wasting of facial fat that leaves a person looking sickly and skeletal and exposed to stigma and discrimination.

Greater disease awareness and education is required in order to slow the spread of HIV and improve the quality of life of the HIV-positive community.

The copyright of the article Prevalence of HIV in Australia in Diseases/Viruses is owned by Sarah Mathiesen.