A bold new plan to eliminate HIV related stigma and discrimination has been unveiled by the Victorian State Government along with $1.2 million towards research into a vaccine and a cure for HIV. The new HIV strategy also prioritises prevention, testing and HIV treatment in collaboration with affected communities across Victoria. Here’s an overview of what’s involved and what this means.
What is it and who is it for?
“The Victorian HIV Strategy 2017-2020” is the first announced in the state since 2009. It outlines the Victorian Government’s commitment to a combination prevention approach to achieve the ambitious target of the virtual elimination of new HIV transmissions by 2020.
The strategy is intended for people living with, affected by, or at risk of HIV, and their families and communities. These priority populations include: gay and bisexual men; other men who have sex with men; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; migrants and refugees; transgender and gender diverse people; culturally and linguistically diverse people; people who inject drugs; sex workers; people in custodial settings; people from or who travel to high-prevalence countries; and women at greater risk of HIV.
“The Andrews Labor Government wants to make it clear that stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with HIV is completely unacceptable.”
Furthermore, the strategy comes with the announcement of $1.2 million to establish a Victorian HIV research consortium, advancing research into a vaccine and a cure for the virus. The research grant will draw together the best minds in biomedical and social research to accelerate efforts to eliminate HIV. This funding will assist in strengthening partnerships with researchers to progress key areas of interest such as biomedical intervention, treatment, vaccine and cure in partnership with affected communities.
Eliminating HIV stigma at the forefront of policy
The strategy elevates stigma and discrimination as a key policy focus; recognising that stigma remains a key driver of transmissions, is a barrier to service access and impacts individuals’ health and wellbeing. Addressing stigma head-on will make efforts around prevention testing and treatment significantly more successful. More importantly, it will help improve both the mental and physical health of people living with HIV.
The Hon. Jill Hennessy MP, Minister for Health said “The Andrews Labor Government wants to make it clear that stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with HIV is completely unacceptable.” She went on to say “In undertaking these efforts, we must never lose sight of what matters most: the health and wellbeing of people living with, affected by, and at risk of HIV. This is a period of hope. Together we have the opportunity to create a better future for those living with and affected by HIV.”
Three years ago Australian Health Ministers from all states and territories committed to working towards the virtual elimination of new Australian HIV transmissions by the end of 2020 as part of the AIDS 2014 Legacy Statement. Now in 2017, the Victorian HIV Strategy continues to uphold that near-term objective.
The strategy also outlines a longer-term vision: By 2030 Victoria will eliminate stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and achieve the 95-95-95 targets for diagnosis, treatment and viral suppression.
Those 95-95-95 targets mean that:
- 95% of all people living with HIV will be diagnosed and know their HIV status
- 95% of all people diagnosed with HIV will be accessing appropriate treatment
- 95% of all people accessing treatment will reach an undetectable viral load
By 2030 Victoria will eliminate stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and achieve the 95-95-95 targets for diagnosis, treatment and viral suppression.
In addition to benefiting individuals’ wellbeing, reaching the undetectable viral load target is important on a community level because people who manage this over time have effectively zero chance of transmitting the virus.
Priority objectives and focus areas
In the interim, the priority objectives and focus areas relate to HIV prevention, testing, treatment and the elimination of stigma and discrimination.
For the first time in Australia, the plan also acknowledges women, trans and gender diverse people as priority populations too. Jeremy Wiggins, Co-founder of PASH.tm, an advocacy group for trans men said “To improve sexual health screening among communities like trans and gender diverse people, we need to understand the unique and diverse needs of each person. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work.”
In support of this new state-wide strategy, a ‘Testing Week’ for STIs and blood-borne viruses will be held in the second week of September. It’s the first time an initiative of this kind has been held in Victoria, and will boost education about the need for testing and rates of people being tested.
How it’s been received
Simon Ruth, CEO of VAC said “Our plan forward will need to be a comprehensive one ensuring HIV testing is accessible and affordable to everyone and that we respond to the needs of people living with HIV – in particular, those aging with HIV.”
The strategy notes that by 2020 an estimated 38.5 per cent of people living with HIV in Victoria will be aged over 55 years, and that efforts should be directed to understanding the long-term health consequences of HIV as this population ages.
Brent Allan, CEO of Living Positive Victoria said “To have the elimination of HIV stigma and discrimination listed as priority objective of this strategy will be a driving force to achieve zero new transmissions by 2020.”
The strategy outlines various priority actions which fit into three system enabling areas:
- Increase knowledge among key workforces
- Coordinate and integrate services across the continuum of HIV prevention, treatment and care
- Increase data quality, monitoring and evaluation of effectiveness, and support research
More information on priority actions in “The Victorian HIV Strategy 2017-2020” document is available online.
“In the next few years we will see more people accessing treatment and achieving an undetectable viral load than ever before.”
As for executing next steps, the strategy outlines the need to map out how its goals will be achieved, how resources will be best utilised, and how any impacts of the changes will be evaluated. While this level of detailed planning isn’t considered part of the strategy itself, it does describe oversight and governance from an advisory committee for achieving both the 2020 and 2030 goals.
It notes that “Implementing this strategy promises to be an exciting period for achieving our bold vision. In the next few years we will see more people accessing treatment and achieving an undetectable viral load than ever before. We will have new and improved ways to bring testing and treatments to people in a way that is culturally appropriate and effective.”
After all the facts, stats, goals and ambitions, one perspective in the strategy from Theodore Tsipiras, community advocate and activist, stands out: “Ending HIV isn’t only about strategies and targets. It’s about recognising the humanity of the people who live with HIV, and of all those who are at risk or affected by it. We aren’t statistics and case studies. We are leaders, and partners in this effort. Only by working together will we end the HIV epidemic.”