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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 1695

Senator POWELL(10.22) —I welcome the statement on the acquired immune deficiency syndrome, AIDS, that was tabled by the Special Minister of State (Senator Tate). I accept the fact that this statement has been made now because of the launching at the weekend of the national public awareness campaign on AIDS-a campaign which the Australian Democrats strongly support and warmly welcome. The date of the launching has been known for some time and I regret that the Minister's statement has come before us on a day when the public is not listening to the debate in the Senate. I think it is important that this issue be canvassed as widely as possible. As the health spokesperson for the Australian Democrats and as a member of the parliamentary liaison group on AIDS, I also regret the fact that there has been no opportunity to view the campaign about which the Minister speaks in some detail in his statement.

According to the Minister's statement, there have been fairly wide briefings in the community of religious leaders, journalists and, as the statement says, `party leaders', although my own Party leader and I will be briefed this evening. I therefore took considerable interest in an article published earlier this month in the Times on Sunday by Kate Legge, who made the point that the campaign to which the Minister's statement refers is a political compromise, that it is proceeding with caution and that there is nervousness among Government Ministers who fear that the issue could be politicised in an election year. That article was published on 15 March. On 23 March the Press talked about statements that the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) had made the previous weekend, stressing that the campaign would be very tough, hard hitting and frank. If the journalist concerned had had prior briefing on the campaign, her response would seem at odds with the Prime Minister's statement. I certainly hope that when we see this campaign it will be hard hitting and will penetrate the consciousness of people in the community because, as the Minister said in his statement-I believe that statement contains a great many comments on AIDS which we should all be taking to heart-as Senator Durack has said and as I am sure other people will say, this is a major problem in our community. Unless the public education program to be launched at the weekend is as hard hitting as the Prime Minister said it would be and as I believe it should be, we will not be much further advanced. It is perhaps the major public health issue confronting us in the 1980s and into the 1990s. The spread of information is crucial. Especially crucial is education in regard to the fact that this is an issue which the heterosexual community must take to heart; that it is not just a problem for the male homosexual community, the drug community or any other small section of the community. There really is no room for us to be coy or hesitant, because of the potential enormity of the situation.

I just draw the attention of the Senate to an article in the Adelaide Advertiser on 24 March which points out that already in New York the biggest single killer among women aged from 25 to 29 is AIDS. So it is not an issue only for the male homosexual community, and this is something which we all need to bear in mind. As I said, I hope that the Prime Minister's commitment is met in this public education program, because already we have a number of other lifestyle related diseases in the community which are causing too many Australians to die. The range of cancers, in particular lung cancer, cardio-vascular disease, motor vehicle accidents, drug abuse, and especially alcohol abuse, are all lifestyle related problems which are causing inordinate numbers of Australians to die. We have not shown ourselves as a community very capable of lifestyle changes and adaptations in those areas. All I can say is that, certainly in the case of AIDS, we need to demonstrate more commitment and more progress if we are not to suffer from yet another major killer across the board.

There is, of course, a great inadequacy in our knowledge. This is being addressed and we are improving. Just a few years ago we thought that this disease had an incubation period of a few years before the symptoms would show. Now our knowledge tells us that the incubation period can be as long as 15 years. We used to think that only a small percentage of the people who had positive antibodies would develop full AIDS. We are now seeing that this is not the case and that in fact it looks as though the majority of people who have positive antibodies are developing full AIDS. So the input of the Government towards increasing our knowledge through the scientific community is critical in this area as well.

I address a couple of the specifics in the Minister's report. It is useful that the Minister has pointed out that a very short while ago we knew very little, we did not even really know about the disease. I commend the Government for its support of groups in the community, in particular its support for the first groups who began work on this issue both in terms of public awareness and in building up support systems for high risk groups. The Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations has been supported by the Government, and I think that has been a very useful contribution to limiting the impact of AIDS in the community. Perhaps our largest challenge is to approach this issue with compassion. We must not take a hard line attitude and imagine that the disease may not or cannot affect us as individuals in the community.

I point out to the Senate that a recent situation in my State of Victoria caused me to look closely at the issues of compassion surrounding AIDS sufferers. A homosexual couple were affected in that the well partner was not able to receive the carer's pension to look after the dying partner. The last three months of the dying partner's life was spent in appeal, in an attempt to get what I think is a community support which should be available to any carer of a terminally ill person, particularly in the case of AIDS. The Minister has made the point that if AIDS does spread throughout the community, as it well might-as the mother of two teenage daughters and two small sons I, for one, do not want to see that happen-it will impose an enormous cost on the community, apart from anything else. It did seem to me that in this case-and, as I say, in the cases of terminally ill people suffering from any disease-society has a responsibility and, indeed, it makes some economic sense that people should be cared for at home for as long as possible.

I congratulate the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for its recent consideration of broadcasting some of the very specific and proven effective advertising from Europe. I encourage the ABC in that course. Of course, as I say, I have not seen the advertisements which the Australian program will present. I hope that they are as hard hitting and as effective. I would like particularly to take this opportunity to refer-the Minister has briefly referred to it-to the need for an education program among children and in schools. Some material is to be provided. I think one of the most important things that we can and must do is to do everything we can to have education programs in schools.

It is quite obvious and recognised that one of the problems is that the community does not have accurate information. In fact, the survey results which the Minister's statement refers to demonstrate a great deal of ignorance and misinformation. For instance, 36 per cent of the people surveyed by the National Advisory Committee on AIDS believed that AIDS could be transmitted by casual contact, including hand shaking, hugging and sharing food. This, of course, is inaccurate. There was also a very large number of `don't knows'. So people did not perhaps have inaccurate information; they had no information at all. It is necessary to be specific. It is necessary that an information program be as broadly based as possible. In order that the next generation of Australians will not be markedly at risk, we must do everything we can to encourage programs in schools.

In this morning's Australian newspaper the Chairman of the AIDS Task Force, who is about to retire, had published what I consider to be a most significant letter on this issue. It was headed: `Face up to the facts on AIDS'. I certainly endorse Professor Penington's exhortation. The key point that he makes in his letter is this:

We have absolutely clear evidence of transmission of the infection through normal heterosexual intercourse in Australia.

That is something that everybody must know. He also states:

People can only protect themselves from infection if they know the facts.

Again, that is a very important message. His letter continues:

In due course, slow but steady spread will occur in the heterosexual community, as has already been seen in the United States and is widespread in Africa.

Professor Penington says:

If people face up to the facts-and this includes children in schools . . .

That is a very important message from Professor Penington which I want to underline. As I said, I have not seen the public information program as yet. I welcome the Minister's statement and commend to the Australian public the information which it contains. I hope that the advertising campaign will be strong and effective, and I also exhort members of the community to take to heart the warnings which will be there and to use the information which will be made available through the program.