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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 1935


Mr PORTER —by leave-The coa- lition believes that it is appropriate for the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) from time to time to bring the Parliament up to date with action he is taking to confront the problems of preventing the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, as well as indicate action being taken to assist those who are suffering from the disease. He should also detail the funding being provided for research into ways and means of controlling or curing the disease. There is no doubt that AIDS is one of the most serious public health problems ever to be faced by this country. Whilst it is not a contagious disease, it is communicable through the transmission of body fluids, especially the transmission of blood and semen from one person to another. It is, therefore, of paramount importance that governments, both Federal and State, make the fight against AIDS and the spread of AIDS a high priority.

Soon after I was appointed spokesman for health for the coalition in December 1984 it became apparent to me that AIDS was emerging as a very significant health problem with enormous consequences for the Australian community. Initially, I was concerned that the Government was playing down reports regarding the seriousness of the disease, and there was clearly a shortage of information available to the public about the disease. This led to irrational and unfounded fears being generated in the community. Whilst those problems have now been addressed, it is still the case that there are some misconceptions about being able to catch the disease, for example, by living in the same house or using the same utensils as an AIDS sufferer. Nevertheless, since those early days the national AIDS Taskforce and the National Advisory Committee on AIDS, chaired by Professor Penington and Ita Buttrose respectively, have taken action to address these problems.

I take this opportunity to express the coalition's appreciation of the time, effort and dedication which both these people, together with their committees, have put into the fight against AIDS. They have been working in a very difficult and sensitive area and their untiring efforts on behalf of the community are deserving of our praise. I, therefore, regret that Professor Penington, because of other work commitments, is unable to continue in his role as Chairman of the AIDS Taskforce. He has been instrumental in getting the campaign against AIDS off the ground, and I wish him well.

Whilst work has been done to inform the public about the disease and to dispel some of the myths; nevertheless, the hardest work is still before us. I am sure that the majority of the community believes that AIDS is a problem largely restricted to the gay community, drug users who share needles, and those who received blood transfusions before we introduced blood screening which has virtually eliminated the risk of infection through a blood transfusion. As I understand it, it is this community attitude which the Government is now intending to confront with a publicity and information campaign. Let me say at the outset that the coalition agrees with the Government that this is a high priority. The plain facts are that unless action is taken, AIDS will not be concentrated in the existing high risk group-that is homosexuals, intravenous drug users and haemophiliacs-but rather it will spread into the heterosexual community.

Australian has generally been following the trends of the disease in the United States. The Minister mentioned in his statement that the number of cases of transmission of the disease in the heterosexual community has risen from 1 per cent to 4 per cent. That is an extremely significant increase, and unless action is taken to inform the public of the risks of catching AIDS, especially among the young sexually active in our community, we will have a problem of mammoth proportions on our hands. There is already a total of 442 cases of full-blown AIDS in Australia, of whom 238 have died. Up to 50,000 Australians are estimated to be carriers of the disease, many of whom would not know and are apparently healthy. Professor Penington has stated that the projections indicate that the total number of people with the full-blown disease is projected to more than double to 1,000 by 1988 with 1,000 new cases expected annually by 1990. At the moment the Minister claims that there is an increase of more than one additional case in Australia every day. There is no room for complacency.

Whilst it is clear that the disease is continuing to spread very rapidly, it is also of very great concern that more and more of those who have been diagnosed as antibody positive are going on to develop full-blown AIDS. There is no clear indication at present as to what proportion of those who are antibody positive will develop the full-blown disease, because the suggested rates of conversion vary from between 25 per cent and 70 per cent. Regardless of the exact rates of conversion, the figures highlight the need to take action to prevent the spread of the disease. Programs have been in progress to inform and educate those in the high risk groups. The problem with this approach is that too many people believe that the chance of getting AIDS is restricted to those high risk groups such as homosexuals or drug users. The stark facts are that if one has unprotected intercourse with someone who has the virus, one runs the risk of catching AIDS. It is not just those in the gay community and drug users who carry the disease.

My real concern is the fact that in recent survey work of those in the sexually active age group it was shown that over 90 per cent considered that AIDS was transmitted by homosexual activity. This fact was really brought home to me when I recently saw a television program on AIDS on which young people were interviewed in a hotel. They openly admitted that they were sexually active, that they were not using any protection such as condoms, and that they did not believe they could get AIDS from their group of friends because they believed it was limited to the gay community. Such ignorance of the prospects of catching AIDS must be attacked, otherwise we run the risk of an uncontrollable spread of the disease. Some, of course, would argue that the answer to that problem is to campaign against the level of promiscuity in our society. What is needed, they argue, is a change of community attitudes. Whether or not that is right, the immediate concern is that whilst such activity continues, people must be informed of the risks they run and the need to take protective action if they continue their existing practices.

The Government has announced that it has allocated $2m for a media campaign to be run on television and radio and in newspapers and magazines. Any such information or educational programs must be honest, clear, unambiguous and accurate and obviously they must be targeted to the appropriate age groups. At the same time such programs must not undermine the moral, ethical, family and social values on which our country is founded. In ensuring the appropriate balance in such an education campaign, consultation must be undertaken with community and religious leaders and the co-operation of State and local governments must be sought. I have had discussions with Ita Buttrose about my concerns regarding this particular aspect of any campaign. She advises that discussions have been held with community and religious leaders about the thrust of the campaign that is about to be launched, but not the actual wording of the advertisements as I believe that these have only just been finalised.

The coalition strongly supports the need for an information and education campaign targeted especially to the sexually active in our community. However, we are firmly of the view that any such program must be undertaken after full consultation and, hopefully, with the co-operation of community and religious leaders. The major concern is that any such program should not be seen as an attack on the family or undermining family values.

There are a number of other issues which need to be addressed in our campaign against AIDS in this country. Firstly, access to AIDS testing services must be provided with appropriate follow-up advice and counselling. Secondly, there are a number of policy issues which have to be resolved in relation to the compulsory testing for AIDS. For example, some time ago the coalition called for screening for AIDS for those wishing to immigrate to this country. I understand from departmental sources within the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs that this is now policy, although I am not aware of any statement being made on the issue. Another area of concern in relation to compulsory testing is in our gaols. Here the concern is that because governments cannot control the sexual behaviour of inmates there is a need for testing and segregation of those with the disease. The Government has not responded to this concern. Thirdly, there have been concerns raised that more funding should be made available for AIDS research.

These are just a few of the vital issues which have to be confronted and, whilst not wishing to detract from the urgent need for an informative, educational program to advise people of the risks of catching AIDS through sexual intercourse, the time has come for the Government to produce a general policy paper outlining the Government's policy in these various areas, together with details of funding arrangements made with the States identifying programs being funded so that the assessment can be made of the appropriateness of existing priorities. The campaign against AIDS must involve education, research, testing, counselling and care. We need to have the total program details rather than just looking at isolated areas of the program.

Let me finish where I started. There is no doubt that AIDS is one of the most significant public health problems facing this country. There is an urgent need for the Australian community to be advised of the action which must be taken to avoid contracting the disease. At the end of 1984 there had been 37 deaths in Australia from 49 cases of AIDS. By February 1986 the number of deaths had doubled to 72. One year later that number has more than trebled to 214 deaths. It is not a disease limited to the gay community and drug users; it is spreading into the heterosexual community and action must be taken to contain it.