PM's conservatism can break 'logjam' of AIDS inaction

21 July, 2014

PM Tony Abbott should use his position as a conservative to break a "deadly logjam" of passivity on HIV and AIDS, former Australian High Court Judge Michael Kirby told an international conference in Melbourne on Sunday (20 July).

In his opening address to delegates, Kirby said as "a conviction politician and unabashed conservative", Abbott could use his clout and reach out to political leaders at the upcoming G20 summit in Brisbane, Queensland, as well as in meeting of the Commonwealth of Nations in order to bolster the development of HIV policy.

"Many of those who have left the taps of infection still open are more likely to listen to him than to others that talk a language that they abhor," Kirby said.

"Conservatives, you see, can be vital allies in the struggle against AIDS. We should never forget that it was President George W. Bush in the United States who established the PEPFAR Fund and promoted the Global Fund that has helped save millions of vulnerable lives."

During his tenure as Minister of Health from 2003-2007, Kirby said Abbott "steadfastly maintained adherence to the established consensus policies on AIDS".

"When some parliamentary colleagues proposed an end to the highly successful needle exchange scheme that has virtually eliminated HIV among injecting drug users, he sided with the angels and refused to change," Kirby said.

AMA: 'business-as-usual approach not enough'

This follows the AMA, in the lead up to conference, last week calling on all Australian governments to renew their efforts to prevent HIV, and to provide greater support for people living with or at risk of HIV and other sexually transmissible infections.

The AMA Position Statement on Sexual and Reproductive Health 2014, released on 18 July, stresses the need to improve policy coordination, overcome gaps in service provision, and increase investment in prevention and treatment.

AMA President, A/Prof Owler said Australia's response to HIV was at a crossroads, with the rate of new infections at the highest level in 20 years.

"In the face of increasing rates of HIV infection, a business-as-usual approach is not enough," he said.

"Testing rates have declined, rates of unprotected sex and high-risk sexual behaviour have increased, and a significant number of those infected with HIV are not receiving treatment.

"Despite Australia's earlier gains in combating the spread of HIV, governments have been slow to adapt to new challenges and changing demographics.

"There are persisting and growing gaps in testing, and access to affordable treatments and clinical care.

"There is a growing gap between the demand for clinical HIV services and their supply, with too many people missing out on essential treatment.

"The federal government can address this by increasing the Medicare rebates for services provided by Sexual Health Medicine Specialists, as recommended by its Medical Services Advisory Committee."

A/Prof Owler said the AMA welcomed the release of new national strategies on HIV, sexually transmissible infections, and blood-borne viruses, which have been endorsed by the Commonwealth and all State and Territory Health Ministers.

"For the first time, the national strategies include targets that provide an impetus for action and a framework for accountability," A/Prof Owler said.

"The AMA commends the government's commitment to halving new HIV infections by 2015, and ending new infections by 2020.

"But to reach these goals, we must act now.

"We urgently need an implementation action plan and government investment if we are to turn aspirational targets into a reality."