HIV diagnosis numbers rising but still below earlier yearly averages

While HIV diagnoses appear to be on the rise in New Zealand, researchers say the numbers are still lower than the 2016-20 annual average.

Figures released by the University of Otago Aids Epidemiology Group show 97 people were diagnosed with HIV in New Zealand in 2023, compared with 77 in 2022 and 67 in 2021.

However, diagnoses over the preceding five years (2016-20) averaged out to 138 cases per year, and the latest figures represent a 30% drop from the annual average.

Group leader Dr Sue McAllister said the HIV Action Plan for New Zealand included a target of 90% reduction in locally acquired infections, compared with a 2010 baseline.

"A considerable amount of work is being undertaken in the sector to meet this target.

"The low numbers diagnosed in 2021 and 2022 were likely to have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, therefore, even though there was an increase in 2023, the overall downward trend of diagnoses continues, which is encouraging."

She said HIV transmission still existed in New Zealand, so it was important to continue the main prevention efforts — condom use, uptake and adherence to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), regular HIV testing and testing for other sexually transmitted infections.

Gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM) were the group most affected by HIV in New Zealand, she said.

Of the 97 people diagnosed in the country last year, 65 were MSM, 17 were heterosexually acquired (10 women and 7 men), and 15 people reported the means of acquisition as "other or unknown".

Of the 65 MSM, whose ages ranged from 19 to 74 years, 43 were reported to have acquired HIV in New Zealand.

Dr McAllister said that was an increase from the previous two years, but it also represented a 37% decline from the annual average of 68 over the preceding five years (2016-20).

In men and women who were reported to have acquired HIV heterosexually, the numbers remained small and relatively stable during the past 10 years.

She said there was a large increase (123) in people living in New Zealand who were first diagnosed with HIV overseas, compared with an annual average of 57 per year over the previous five years (2018-22).

That was likely a reflection of the recent increase in overall immigration to New Zealand, and potentially due to recent changes to immigration policies allowing people living with HIV to migrate.

People living with diagnosed HIV were less than 0.1% of migrant arrivals in 2023, she said.

"It is important to remember that, with advances in treatment, people living with HIV can lead long and fulfilling lives, and those who are on effective treatment cannot pass HIV on to their sexual partners."

People requiring care and treatment for HIV in New Zealand were of all ethnic groups and ages, she said.

Data from Pharmac showed there were 3272 people receiving subsidised anti-retroviral therapy at the end of June 2023.