HIV rates surge to 10-year peak in Australia

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Microscopic view of the HIV virus next to a lymphocyte.

SYDNEY (AFP) - New cases of HIV in Australia have surged to their highest point in a decade as advances in treatment dull fear of the disease among gay men.

Australia has experienced a 41 percent increase in new cases since 2000, reversing a major drop in new diagnoses after 1996, according to the latest report from the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

"It might be here that improvements in HIV treatments have lessened the motivation for people to protect themselves sexually," the centre's deputy director professor John Kaldor speculated.

While the increase could be due to more people coming forward for diagnosis, it was highly likely practising safe sex was considered less important for some people than it once was, he said.

"It could be that safe sex has become less recognised as a social norm and if so ... that's very worrying."

While the increase mainly affected the country's gay male population, the report showed more than 30 percent of heterosexual women and 28 percent of heterosexual men had not used condoms with a casual partner in the previous six months.

The report, launched at the Australasian Society for HIV Medicines Conference in Melbourne on Thursday, showed a rise in new HIV diagnoses from 656 cases in 2000 to 930 in 2005.

An estimated 15,310 people were living with HIV/AIDS in Australia at the end of 2005, including around 1,100 women, with 70 percent of people receiving antiretroviral therapy, the report said.

The report revealed HIV rates differed little between the country's indigenous and non-indigenous populations, but heterosexual contact and intravenous drug use were the main method of transmission among Aboriginal Australians.

The centre's research found a quarter of HIV-positive gay men enrolled in one study had had unprotected sex with at least one casual partner whose status was unknown in the previous six months.

They were more likely to have had unprotected intercourse with casual partners than were HIV-negative men, it said.

The centre also reported cases of chlamydia had increased four-fold and gonorrhoea had doubled over the past decade, mainly in the gay community