Ministry of Health declines funding for HIV prevention study, despite known risks

There were 224 HIV diagnoses in New Zealand in 2015 - the highest number ever recorded.

There were 224 HIV diagnoses in New Zealand in 2015 - the highest number ever recorded.

The Government cut funding for a landmark HIV prevention study despite an internal report outlining the dangers of discontinuing the research, new documents reveal.

The University of Auckland has undertaken the only large-scale monitoring of HIV risk behaviours and trends among men who have sex with men in New Zealand since 2002.

However, the Ministry of Health has withdrawn funding for the Gay Auckland Periodic Survey and Gay Men's Online Sex Survey for 2017.

Prince Harry is one of a number of celebrities who advocates for HIV treatment and support.

Prince Harry is one of a number of celebrities who advocates for HIV treatment and support.

That decision came despite an internal report, conducted in 2013 and released to under the Official Information Act, that showed discontinuing the study would have a negative impact on public health action and programmes.

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It would also lead to a loss of information on trends in HIV diagnosis, and difficulty identifying sub-groups engaged in high-risk activities, GayNZ reported.

It was also inconsistent with the World Health Organisation's guidelines for for HIV surveillance.

The only potential advantage in not funding the research was "short-term cost savings", GayNZ reported.

The study's lead researcher, Dr Peter Saxton,  said he was "extremely disappointed" with the decision. 

"In 2015 we saw the highest number of new HIV cases on record in NZ. But we don't know what's driving this increase, meaning we can't target HIV prevention to have the most impact.

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"We have all the tools to end HIV transmission but we need data provided by [these surveys] to guide the country's responses. It's fundamental to an evidence-based response to the epidemic in NZ and ending transmission sooner rather than later."

Any public policy decisions would now have to rely on the last survey results, from 2014.

Otago University's AIDS Epidemiology group currently monitors the rates of HIV nationwide, but leader Dr Sue McAllister said  it does not look at the behavioural causes.

Its latest data showed 224 people in New Zealand - 205 men, 18 women, and one transgender woman - were diagnosed with HIV in 2015.

This number has been rising steadily since 2011, and is the highest ever reported.

"HIV is not going away, and in order to be able to understand why the numbers are going up it is really important to have that behavioural information," McAllister said.

"Without that we are just kind of walking in the dark. It's crazy it's not being funded - we can't capture that information in any other way."

Dr Saxton previously warned against ignoring signs that HIV was regaining traction.

"Successes so far cannot be allowed to engender complacency. HIV transmission is preventable, but not declining; an HIV diagnosis is still life changing, and HIV medication is expensive," he wrote in the New Zealand Medical Journal in December 2015.

Jason Myers, executive director of the NZ AIDS Foundation, said the data set "has been critical in informing the targeted HIV prevention programmes of the NZAF".

"The ministry's decision to not fund a 2017 repeat, against their own internal advice, is extremely disappointing. 

"We are at a critical time in New Zealand's response to HIV and there is genuine opportunity to seriously reverse current trends and ultimately end HIV transmission if we act now. This opportunity is placed at grave risk without the information we need to most strategically allocate already stretched funding." 

The Ministry of Health has been approached for comment.


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