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Vigilance needed in battle against HIV/AIDS

Vigilance needed in battle against HIV/AIDS, Ministry of Health says

All New Zealanders must remain vigilant and take responsibility for helping to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, the Ministry of Health said today.

Ministry spokeswoman Dr Alison Roberts said World AIDS Day on 1 December was a timely reminder to New Zealanders of the complex issues surrounding HIV/AIDS and the epidemic throughout the world.

Worldwide, the number of people with HIV/AIDS continues to grow, with an estimated 40 million people living with HIV. AIDS has already killed about 20 million people, and the annual number of deaths continues to rise. Last year alone, three million people died from AIDS and another 68 million people are estimated to die from AIDS by the year 2020.

Dr Roberts said while New Zealand's success in prevention of HIV has been notable, new infections continue to occur.

``We must remember that HIV/AIDS can infect anyone" -- Dr Roberts said.

``We can't afford to be complacent -- the safer sex message is as important today as it has ever been. Newer drugs help people to stay well for many years, but preventing transmission is still our best protection.

``HIV/AIDS is not just about science and medicine though. We need to address the related social problems HIV/AIDS sufferers face, such as stigma and discrimination, to strengthen care for those infected, and prevent infection for those who are vulnerable."

Dr Roberts said efforts to control the spread of HIV among men who have sex with men have had some success, but there are also other vulnerable groups in New Zealand. These include injecting drug users, sex workers, and migrants from areas where HIV prevalence is high.

Latest New Zealand figures show that up until 30 September, 770 people were notified as having AIDS.

During the third quarter of 2002, the AIDS Epidemiology Group received five notifications of people with AIDS -- three men and two women. In the same period, 22 people -- 15 males and seven females -- were found to be infected with HIV. This brings the total number of people found to be infected with HIV in New Zealand to 1849.

Background The largest annual number of people with AIDS diagnosed in New Zealand was in 1989 and 1990. Since that time the annual number of diagnoses has declined, with the year 2000 registering the lowest number of notifications since 1986. The fall since 1996 is likely to be mainly due to the introduction of new treatments that delay the progression of HIV infection.

* The numbers of people diagnosed in 2001, and possibly earlier, may increase due to delayed notifications.

For more information, go to www.moh.govt.nz/aids.html

Questions and Answers What is HIV? HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The virus attacks the immune system, the very part of the body that defends us during infections. Initially, the body puts up a strong fight against HIV and drugs that attack the virus lead to many years of healthy life. This is why someone infected with HIV may look and feel well for years before becoming sick.

What is AIDS? AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It is a syndrome (a group of illnesses or conditions) resulting from a weakened (or deficient) immune system. Someone with HIV only develops AIDS after years of living with HIV, when the virus has destroyed much of the immune system. Someone with AIDS typically dies of diseases such as forms of pneumonia or cancer, which the person's weakened immune system cannot fight. These diseases are known as opportunistic infections.

How do you know if you have HIV? HIV can be detected in the body by having an antibody test, which detects the presence of antibodies produced by the body in response to HIV. You are ``HIV-Positive'' if you have these antibodies in your blood. But these antibodies do not appear until two weeks -- or in some cases a few months -- after infection, a period known as the ``window period''. The tests for HIV infection are available from your general practitioner, local sexual health centre or from sexual health centres run by the AIDS Foundation. All consultations and testing results are confidential.

Are there any symptoms for HIV? There may not be any signs or symptoms of HIV infection for years. Some people have flu-like symptoms about two to six weeks after infection, which last for a few days. Others show no signs at all until the immune system becomes weak and damaged several years later.

How can someone get HIV? HIV can be transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breastmilk. It can also be transmitted through blood transfusions, unprotected anal sex and pregnancy. There are no cases of HIV being transmitted by saliva or tears, but theoretically, it is possible to become infected through oral sex, particularly if there are open sores or bleeding gums. The risk of contracting HIV from sexual intercourse becomes much higher in the presence of genital ulcers from sexually transmitted infections. Condoms are recommended to prevent sexual transmission.

How many New Zealanders are known to have died from AIDS? AIDS Epidemiology Group figures from 1984 through to the end of the third quarter in 2002 puts the number at 583 people -- 558 males and 25 females.

Treatments for HIV Antiretroviral drugs are available for people with HIV infection. They are started when the virus's effects on the immune system is apparent on a blood test. People with the infection remain well for many years before needing drug therapy.

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