HIV infection rates still rising for Asian men in Australia

For a Sydney resident named Dex, receiving a positive result to a regular HIV test came as a shock.

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“We got the results, and, to my surprise – because I was pretty confident when I walked in – it was staring back at me. I was like, ‘This can’t be right.'”

Born in the Philippines, he had taken an HIV test while living in Singapore, shortly before he was due to move to Australia.

“It was hard to cope, because there were a lot of changes on the horizon but, then, there’s this one thing that could potentially destroy everything for you.”

Dex is one of a rising number of Asian gay men in Australia living with HIV.

Homosexuality is outlawed in many Asian countries, making it difficult for at risk men to access testing and prevention information.

The executive director of the Asia-Pacific region’s main sexual health organisation for gay men, Midnight Poonkasetwattana, says that could help explain the increased rate of infection.

“Migrant gay men coming into Australia might not have information in that country already and have no tools to access that kind of information in a different language, new settings, that they may not know about.”

HIV rates for Indigenous Australians are also on the rise, doubling over the past five years.

Mr Poonkasetwattana says that could also be due to a lack of access to treatment and prevention information within Australia.

“Vulnerable populations, or people at the margins of society, are the ones who are more susceptible to many inequalities, and particularly for health. So, for HIV, that could be your migrant worker, you could be from a lower socio-economic status, you could be Indigenous, from an ethnic minority.”

But more people in Australia could now potentially be able to access prevention medication.

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP, is an antiretroviral drug taken by people at high risk of infection.

It is currently available through trials in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, with South Australia, the ACT and Western Australia due to start this year.

An HIV researcher from the Kirby Institute in Sydney, Professor David Cooper, says the drug has, so far, been shown to prevent infection.

“Five thousand men are on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. So the uptake’s been phenomenal. And, very excitingly, so far, there has not been a report of an HIV infection in someone who’s taking PrEP.”

With increased treatment and prevention options available, Mr Poonkasetwattana says leading sexual health organisations are using innovative ways to target awareness campaigns.

He says the campaigns are aimed particularly at younger generations.

“We’ve come up with this campaign called Test XXX, that looks at using social media such as Facebook or YouTube, or gay social apps like Grinder or Hornet, to target those messages to young guys that might not traditionally be reached by prevention messages.”

For the Sydney man Dex, knowledge is the key to living what he calls a healthy, positive life.

“When I found out, I was like, ‘I’m never going to have sex anymore’ – out of the fear that I would cause this pain to another person. I have sort of learnt over the years that it is pretty much a manageable thing.”