Can NZ be AIDS-free by 2025?

Watch the video above for the full report from The Nation.

Medical experts say recent breakthroughs in HIV treatment mean it's now possible to completely eliminate the virus in New Zealand.

But the numbers are going the other way - more New Zealanders were diagnosed with HIV last year than any other since records began.

For three years, Jane Bruning was preparing to die.

"I found out I was HIV positive when I was living in Tanzania in 1990. At the time an ex-boyfriend of mine had died and some friends of mine called me and said he had died from salmonella, typhoid and AIDS, and that it might be a good idea if I got myself tested."

Ms Bruning was working as a tour operator in Tanzania when she was diagnosed in 1990. There was no medication.

She was scared, staring at a death sentence and silenced by stigma.

"I had to then tell my partner and at that time, and he got tested and unfortunately he was also positive - and I remember his words were like, 'We don't tell anybody because they'll think that I'm a f****t and that we're drug addicts and something like that, so just keep quiet.'"

Four years later, she returned to New Zealand to die. She wanted her family to look after her young son after she was gone.

But soon after her return, the first wave of anti-retroviral medication became available. While they were a lifeline, they were also fierce - the side-effects left her with permanent wastage in her arms, legs and face.

Ms Bruning's now head of Positive Women, an advocacy and support group for women living with HIV in New Zealand.

The group represents 200 women around New Zealand. Many are the only ones in their towns with HIV.

"Women in HIV in New Zealand are totally unheard and unseen."

"Women are not often tested because they don't fit the risk category… a middle-class white woman who's married would not be offered an HIV test."

In New Zealand, dying from an AIDS-related illness is rare. Yet the number of HIV transmissions is increasing, and the chances of being exposed to the virus are higher than ever before.

Last year, New Zealand had the highest rate of new HIV infections since records began in 1985. The irony is it's happening at a time when advocates say we could be reversing the epidemic.

"There's two key changes that mean HIV prevention is now seriously changed," says Jason Myers, executive director of the AIDS Foundation.

"The first is that we know people living with HIV who are on treatment and who can successfully suppress the HIV in their blood, they're essentially rendered non-infectious. So it follows that if we can diagnose everyone that follows with HIV and treat them, then we can seriously halt the spread of HIV.

"The second significant change is a pill called pre-exposure prophylaxis, and so this concept refers to somebody who is HIV negative essentially taking a pill every day, and if they do that as prescribed, it reduces their risk of acquiring HIV by up to 99 percent."

Those two developments are being embraced by other countries.

In the UK, new data from Public Health England reported for the first time a big drop in the number of infections - 32 percent among men who have sex with men. That's being put down to more testing - that means identifying the virus quicker and getting sufferers treatment, so there's less chance of it being passed on.

But also, large numbers of gay men are now taking drugs that can prevent them becoming infected. In Australia, the same two factors have led to similar results.

The AIDS Foundation says if we followed their example, we could eliminate HIV transmissions here within 10 years.

"We've set the goal of 2025," says Mr Myers.

"I think if we got our act together we could do it sooner. In countries we usually compare ourselves to like Australia and the UK - where they have as a result of high-level political commitment really rolled out that combination of prevention interventions - we've seen really drastic falls in HIV incidence."

The national strategy for HIV and AIDS hasn't been updated since 2003.

Traditionally New Zealand has carried out research that is used to underpin all of the strategic decision making around HIV and AIDS. It was due to be repeated this year, but the Ministry of Health decided not to fund it.

Dr Peter Saxton is the researcher who was supposed to carry out the study.

"The big developments in HIV prevention and treatment occurred in 2015 and we really don't know much about the community's response to those developments," he says, "so our argument is that it really is now the worst possible time to stop conducting behavioural research."

He says investing in preventative treatment could save the taxpayer a lot of money.

"A 20-year-old who acquires HIV, the estimated cost of treating that person's infection for their lifetime is about $800,000. So if we can come up with interventions and certainly also improve research so that we can avoid that 20-year-old from acquiring HIV, we've saved ourselves an awful lot of money."

The Nation / Newshub.

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