National Day of Women Living with HIV in Australia provided an important opportunity to shine a light on the particular issues faced by and of concern to women with HIV, according to Positive Life NSW President, Jane Costello.
In her opening address to a national day event co-hosted by Positive Life and ACON, Ms Costello said if Australia is serious about improving health outcomes for women with HIV and if population-wide virtual elimination of the virus is to be achieved, gender difference needed to be accounted for.
“About 10 per cent of the population of people living with HIV in Australia are women, yet women are largely invisible in our HIV response and women with HIV are a minority who live with inequality, in silence and secrecy,” Ms Costello said.
“That inequality, silence and secrecy feeds a climate of stigma and discrimination as well as an assumption that HIV is simply not an issue for women.
“That sadly still pervades much of our national discourse of HIV, and has major implications for public health policy and service delivery in Australia,” she said.
Ms Costello highlighted that women with HIV in Australia are generally diagnosed late, after significant immune system damage had already been done, and many newly diagnosed women present with an AIDS-defining illness.
“The evidence is now clear that the earlier HIV is diagnosed and the sooner combination anti-retroviral therapy is initiated the better the health outcomes for people living with HIV compared to delayed treatment,” she said.
“Yet advances in treatments will be of limited benefit to women if they continue to present late and with advanced HIV disease.”
Ms Costello also noted alarming signs of an “epidemiological shift” in new diagnoses of HIV in Australia and the UK attributed to heterosexual sex to make the case for including heterosexuals as a priority population in Australia’s HIV response.
“Most women living with HIV in Australia have been infected as a result of heterosexual sex,” she said.
“We’ve been proud to spruik that in Australia, unlike in other parts of the world, the HIV infection barrier between what have been considered our priority populations – gay men, other men who have sex with men, sex workers and people who inject drugs – and the wider community has been maintained.
“But if we fail to account for gender difference and the emerging epidemiological shift in HIV, that chest beating will be a distant memory.
“There are gender differences in HIV in Australia. If we acknowledge those differences we can improve the quality of life and health outcomes for women with HIV, and we can achieve the population wide virtual elimination of HIV,” she said.
Jane Costello’s full National Day of Women Living with HIV address is available here.