Hawke cabinet gripped by AIDS crisis

The Hawke cabinet backed the release of Australia's first national strategy for fighting AIDS, setting a template for how we managed the disease.

Neal Blewett didn't mince his words when he argued the need to take action against a global HIV epidemic in the late 1980s.

"We would be derelict in our public health responsibility to Australians if we did not provide appropriate education and prevention programs," the then health minister wrote in a cabinet submission.

The cabinet papers for 1988-89, released by the National Archives of Australia, show that an adequate response to the AIDS crisis gripped the Hawke government.

Since 1983 more than 1000 cases of the disease had been diagnosed in Australia, resulting in the deaths of 500 people.

However, the figure for HIV infection was unknown with fears it could be as high as 25,000.

In the wake of the successful Grim Reaper advertisements of 1987, cabinet approved a policy discussion paper canvassing a number of controversial strategies.

Those measures included the screening of migration applicants and refugees, compulsory testing and education and prevention programs for intravenous drug users, gay men and sex workers.

A year later, in 1989, Blewett was lobbying cabinet for release of a national strategy.

Both the policy discussion paper and strategy acknowledged there would be sensitivity around the issue, particularly when it came to drug use, prostitution and homosexuality.

But Dr Blewitt's July 21 submission argued for early release of the national strategy - a request agreed to by cabinet.

He argued against widespread compulsory testing as not being cost effective.

However, he recommended it be carried out for prisoners on exit, those charged with a sexual offences, where necessary to determine medical treatment, or for people suspected of HIV infection who may put others at risk.

Dr Blewitt also called for mandatory testing of organ, semen, blood and tissue donations, and for permanent residency applicants.

The AIDS strategy recommended removing limitations on the sale of condoms, establishing needle exchanges and repealing discriminatory laws that could hamper prevention campaign aimed at homosexuals and sex workers.

The Hawke government acted on some of the recommendations, introducing mandatory testing for applicants for permanent residency, defence force recruits and some serving personnel.

It backed a review of anti-discrimination laws with reference to AIDS.

However, it refused Dr Blewett's request for up to $20 million a year to fund the AIDS strategy, after the prime minister's department and Treasury recommended the epidemic be addressed through existing health funding.

But just a few months later cabinet backed the minister's plan to set up a $13.2 million trust fund, which provided financial assistance to those with medically-acquired HIV and their families.

Source AAP

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