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HIV Rates Threaten To Spiral Out Of Control, Expert Warns Major Health Reforms Are Desperately Needed

Injecting drug use within the Indigenous community is getting worse.

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Australia's leading Indigenous sexual health expert has warned health agencies and governments to start investing in community programs to stem a rising tide of HIV and Hepatitis C cases caused by injecting drug use.

Associate Professor James Ward. (Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed)

"There’s been traditionally a lot of emphasis put on alcohol and cannabis within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and while that’s important, evidence is pointing to a big problem of injecting drug use," associate professor James Ward tells BuzzFeed News.

Ward says the rate of Hepatitis C and HIV in the Indigenous community has been climbing since the mid-'90s. "Rates of Hepatitis C rates are three times that of the non-Indigenous population and they are increasing even though that rate is decreasing in non-Aboriginal population," he said.

"The rates of HIV due to injecting drug use are higher in the Aboriginal population, 16% of all the HIV over the last five years in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community is due to injecting drug use, compared to only 3% in the Aboriginal population."

Presenting at the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs (APSAD) Conference in Perth, Ward says the rise of methamphetamine use within the community is contributing to the spike in infections.

"Three per cent of Australians have used methamphetamine in the last year, we’ve got a major problem issue around methamphetamine use in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and that is 13% of our community reported using meth in the past year."

Ward, head of infectious diseases in Aboriginal health at the South Australian health and medical research institute, says the health system is not equipped to deal with a rise in HIV. ​

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"We’ve [Indigenous health experts] all been saying for the last 20 years that HIV has got the real potential to escalate [in the Indigenous community], and I really think we are now on the tip of the iceberg of it rapidly increasing in communities," warns Ward.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women already have appalling health outcomes when compared to the rest of the population.They can expect to die around 10 years younger than those in the non-Indigenous community. They're more likely to have higher rates of chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer and more likely to have an STI.

Indigenous people are also less likely to seek treatment around HIV and hepatitis C because of stigma; this, coupled with other chronic diseases and already strained health services in remote and regional areas, means, Ward says, that without more action the future is grim.

"It's going to be a complex scenario where HIV intensifies in areas where there are no HIV specialists; I'm talking regional and remote areas," he says. "These [Indigenous injecting drug users] are also people with substance abuse issues who are notoriously difficult to engage in with health services, particularly for treatment. We’ll need a major health rethink if HIV escalates in these areas."

A summit is scheduled to take place in Brisbane in December for authorities to discuss strategies to cope with the burgeoning crisis.

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Formerly with BuzzFeed News, Allan Clarke is a NITV reporter based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at arielle.benedek+AC@buzzfeed.com.

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