22 Jan 2016

NZ could get rid of HIV - Aids Foundation

3:07 pm on 22 January 2016

New HIV infections in New Zealand could be eliminated within 10 years, the AIDS Foundation says.

It is calling for the government to fund new prevention tools that could halt the epidemic.

A scientist holds three test tubes filled with blood in a laboratory.

Photo: 123RF

The foundation's executive director, Shaun Robinson, said people living with HIV at low levels were not yet eligible for government-funded treatment - and that needed to change.

New Zealand had been very effective in dealing with the epidemic through the wide use of condoms, Mr Robinson said.

But, he said, the foundation was also setting up a trial of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a medication scheme that could stop people who did not use condoms getting infected.

He said tests overseas had proven the drug used in the scheme, TRUVADA, was effective. The drug, which was currently funded by Pharmac as a treatment but not as a preventative measure, cost users that wanted to prevent HIV about $1200 a month

The foundation wanted to determine if the people most at need here would take it regularly.

"Essentially it's very clear now that the drug does work if you take it," Mr Robinson said.

"That's the critical issue because human beings are not necessarily very good at taking drugs, even if they know they need to take them to stay alive."

Testing and treatments

At present, people with low levels of HIV who do not pass the so-called CD4 threshold are not eligible for funded treatment.

The AIDS Foundation wanted the threshold withdrawn as recommended by the World Health Organisation, Mr Robinson said.

"[The threshold was] initially put in because the drugs themselves were quite toxic... There was a trade-off for the person between the side effects and the negative effects of the treatment."

Treatments had improved to the point where the threshold should be removed, he said.

This year, the foundation was also bumping up the number of "rapid" HIV tests it did and working to track down the estimated 600 people in this country who were HIV positive but did not know it.

Mr Robinson said if New Zealand were to introduce blanket testing for everyone in New Zealand, the country could probably end the epidemic in a year.

He said, while that would be costly, it cost up to $1 million to treat each HIV positive New Zealander over their lifetime.

The AIDS Foundation did not make any moral judgements about sex, he said, as people had the right to have as much or as little sex as they chose.

However, they had a responsibility to maintain the sexual health of their sexual partners, and the foundation's job was to reduce harm.

"We want to be able to empower people to do that."

HIV in New Zealand