HIV in NZ Today

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The National HIV Treatment Seminar presented: positive updates on medication research, sad truths of HIV stigma and united consensus for broad ‘safe-sex, medication-access and regular testing’ combined approach to tackling the disease.

On Friday 26 September, the National HIV Treatments Seminar was held at Auckland Hospital. Hosted by Body Positive, the conference’s key objectives included providing: an overview of HIV/AIDS epidemiology in NZ today, an understanding of the current experience of HIV in NZ, an overview of HIV services delivered in NZ today.

Guest speakers included Professor Andrew Grulich from Sydney’s Kirby Institute who spoke about ‘treatment as prevention’. He highlighted early findings from research the institute is undertaking, called the ‘Opposites Attract’ study. The study examines couples combining a positive and negative partner, similar to the European Partners’ study. Preliminary analysis suggested fully suppressed viral loads could drastically affect HIV infection levels, but Grulich advised attendees to wait for his interim results which would be released in 2016.

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University of Otago’s Associate Professor Nigel Dickson also talked about encouraging findings of patients with fully suppressed viral loads, from their Department of Preventive and Social Medicine’s research into New Zealander’s living with HIV on medication.

“This is really positive news for the ‘positive’ population as it clearly reflects that people living with HIV that are aware of their status are taking care of themselves and reducing the potential risk of transmission,” says Body Positive’s Bruce Kilmister.

NZAF’s Executive Director Shaun Robinson believes it is NZ’s health care system that has helped to enable some HIV positive kiwi’s to achieve fully suppressed viral loads. “The news that the NZ health system does a good job at supporting people to reduce their viral load to undetectable is great,” he told express. “But let’s remember that 20% of Positive guys don’t know they’re are positive and 50% of everyone tested is diagnosed late. There are still a lot of people living with HIV who are highly infectious.”

Robinson also points out, “It is true that a person with a suppressed viral load is a lot less infectious. However, the risk of passing on HIV is not completely gone and viral load fluctuates with other STIs and with lapses in taking medication. It is also really important to note that a suppressed viral load gives no protection against other STIs and with a case of untreatable gonorrhoea already in Sydney, this is a serious risk.” Robinson remains pedantic in the NZAF’s message: “Only condoms can protect against STIS and HIV.”

Another talking point of the conference was social worker Susan Mundt’s presentation on HIV stigma. Mundt is on the Community HIV Team at Auckland City and presented findings from her Master’s thesis on HIV stigma and discrimination, specifically in healthcare settings. Her presentation included a shocking story of a midwife advising a pregnant HIV positive pregnant woman that she should have an abortion to avoid the disease being passed on to her baby!

“Susan’s research is excellent but reveals some very sad truths about stigma. Shining light on the darkness of stigma always helps but ultimately health systems need tougher policy and better training to prevent discriminatory actions,” said Robinson, who confirms that HIV stigma within the wider community, will be the theme of this year’s World AIDS Day on Monday 1 December.

Robinson advises, “The biggest thing is to see people with HIV as human. No one wants HIV, it’s a lifelong disease. But no one should be treated badly because they have it.”

Body Positive’s Bruce Kilmister felt that Mudst’s research was a fascinating yet alarming insight into an industry that should know better. “This is the sector we would expect to have more knowledge and education ahead of any other profession or industry and yet Susan’s research reflected there is still stigma and discrimination being experienced by People living with HIV today. Clearly there is still a lot of work to be done in this area,” he says.

Shaun Robinson felt the presentations at the seminar highlighted that there is still work to be done. “NZ is doing extremely well but our epidemic is static – the number of new infections is not high and is not going up, but it is not going down – so we all need to do more – the epidemic is still worse than it was ten years ago,” he tells express; agreeing that a broad approach of condom-use, medication access and increased testing was the best response to improve the epidemic. “There is a growing consensus that a combination of responses is required for HIV –  everybody supported continued wide-spread condom promotion as essential; they also agreed that increased testing and increased access to medications were important for the care of people living with HIV and for the secondary benefit of reducing infectiousness.”

Bruce Kilmister says he was delighted with the seminar’ presentations. “I thought all of them were relevant and meaningful to people living with HIV. Remember this generation is the “guinea pigs” for this disease. We are still learning about HIV as people living with the virus progress in their daily lives and experience what it means and how it impacts on their personal lives.”

Article | Oliver Hall.

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