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World AIDS Day

01 December 2021

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: I rise in support of the motion moved by my colleague the Hon. Tammy Franks. This year's World AIDS Day marks 40 years since the beginning of the AIDS crisis and 30 years since the red ribbon came to represent the international symbol of AIDS awareness. Despite the significant strides that have been made, as my colleague the Hon. Tammy Franks has stated, HIV continues to be a global health issue—36.3 million lives have been lost over the last four decades.

The World Health Organization estimates that 37.7 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2020, over two-thirds of whom (25.4 million) are in the World Health Organization's African region. In 2020, 680,000 people died from HIV-related causes and 1.5 million people acquired HIV. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an insight into the fear and anxiety that must have been experienced 40 years ago.

The US government website provides a time line of these events, and I think it is appropriate to revisit these today. On 5 June 1981, the US Center for Disease Control published an article in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in Los Angeles. The article documented a rare lung infection that had affected five gay men and reported that these men had other health conditions as well. These seemed to indicate that their immune systems were not working. All of these men subsequently died of what we now to be the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

In the months that followed, there were more reports of rare health conditions, cancers among gay men in New York and California. By 2 July, the gay press in San Francisco was reporting the emergence of what they referred to as 'gay men’s pneumonia'. The following day, the New York Times published a story under the headline 'Rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals', and so it was that this concept of gay cancer found its way into mainstream reporting.

In August of that year, the writer and activist Larry Kramer held a meeting of gay men in New York to discuss the response to the crisis. There was no access to rapid funding for research and so the group raised money, a little over $6,000. That was the only money that was raised in that year to fight the epidemic. In December, a paediatric immunologist, Dr Arye Rubinstein, reported the birth of five infants who were born with severe immune deficiencies. They showed very similar symptoms to the conditions that had been reported months earlier among gay men, but the diagnosis was dismissed by his colleagues.

On 10 December 40 years ago, Bobbi Campbell, a nurse from San Francisco, became the first person to reveal their diagnosis of what was then referred to as Kaposi's sarcoma. Campbell died at age 32 in 1984 of what we now know to have been AIDS. By the end of 1981, there were 337 reports of people with the new disease, 321 adults and 16 children under the age of 13—this was just in the United States—and 130 of those people had died by the end of that year. Yet the US Congress would not pass a bill for funding targeted at HIV or AIDS research until May 1983. US President Ronald Reagan did not even mention the virus in any public speeches until September 1985. By December of that year, the United Nations was reporting that HIV was prevalent in every region of the world. By 1992, AIDS was the number one cause of death for men in the United States aged between 25 and 45.

As a gay man, I am in awe of the strength and resilience of people in my community who saw the deaths of friends and loved ones at that time and who fought so hard for HIV and AIDS to get the focus that we know that it needs. I also want to reflect on the lives that were lost, in particular the many young gay men. Many were separated from family and friends and forced to die alone facing terrible stigma. It must have been a very frightening time. The amazing strides that have been made in research and treatment would not have happened if not for the work and the leadership of gay activists and their allies. These were brave, courageous people and they deserve to be honoured today.

There have been some remarkable innovations in the treatment and the diagnosis of HIV in recent years: rapid testing, the availability of prep, improved antiviral treatments. These are all great things, and I know that they are really improving people's lives. As a result of these innovations, people living with HIV can now live long and healthy lives but only if they get access to treatment. Despite these innovations, we have lots of work still to do to end this virus. Targets for combating HIV last year were sadly not met.

The theme for this year's World AIDS Day is 'End inequalities. End AIDS'. This is very timely because there is a terrible inequality in terms of access to HIV treatment. COVID-19 is only making access to health services more challenging. There are more than 25 million people in Africa living with HIV, and the World Health Organization fears that we could see a worst-case scenario of 7.7 million deaths from HIV over the next 10 years if we do not move to meet our targets. That is because of the impact of access to HIV services and treatment of COVID-19.

We have a moral responsibility in Australia to do what we can to support the global efforts to combat HIV, and to ensure that more people get access to these life-changing and life-saving treatments. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that governments around the world can work together to take action. We need this same vision and unity of purpose when it comes to dealing with HIV. I commend the motion.