Joe Rich on Monkeypox and More

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Last month, the New Zealand AIDS Foundation (NZAF) rebranded as the Burnett Foundation Aotearoa, and along with a new name comes new Executive Director Joe Rich, a stalwart of the organisation for the past 11 years. He talks to express about Monkeypox, PrEP, and more. 

How concerned should express readers be about the recent outbreak of Monkeypox overseas and what are Burnett Foundation Aotearoa’s top tips for staying safe at this time?

Monkeypox is typically a self-limiting illness where most people recover fully within 2-4 weeks.

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Observing the global outbreaks, we do see that gay, bi and other men who have sex with men are currently primarily affected.

We want to acknowledge the fears of the community, and we especially need to appreciate the concerns about the risk of unhelpful stigmatising that we have seen occur when one group is disproportionally affected by an infectious disease – this is never okay to do and discourages people from seeking appropriate healthcare.

While not classified as a ‘sexually transmitted infection’, monkeypox cases in the current outbreak seem to spread through sexual networks and during sexual encounters.

We note that the risk of importation to Aotearoa is currently assessed as ‘moderate and increasing’ by the Ministry of Health, however, the overall risk to public health is assessed as ‘low to moderate’.

At the moment we encourage our communities to be vigilant around any indicative symptoms. These include any unusual rashes or skin lesions, and they may be quite localised and appear, for example, in the genital areas or around the mouth, but also elsewhere in the body.

If you do notice any symptoms like those described above, make sure to get in touch with your GP or a sexual health clinic for assessment.

If you do have any symptoms, including only general fever-like symptoms, make sure not to meet up with people for sex until you’re well again.

Why was a rebrand from the NZAF to the Burnett Foundation Aotearoa a necessity for the organisation?

Having the word ‘AIDS’ in the name was an issue because it’s no longer relevant to the programmes and services we offer. Our new name not only honours the powerful legacy of Bruce Burnett, one of our co-founders but also provides the space for the range of programmes and services we’ve developed that intersect with HIV such as sexual health, mental health and addiction.

You have been with the organisation for 11 years now what are you most proud of achieving in that time?

My work on PrEP access is one of my proudest achievements. Initially developing a working group to overcome medico-legal issues relating to people importing medication from overseas, then successfully leading advocacy for PHARMAC funding which has most recently culminated in PHARMAC widening eligibility for PrEP even further. It has been a truly collaborative effort between the community, researchers, clinicians, and others – and it has been very satisfying to see what we’ve been able to achieve together. 

What are the three most pressing objectives you are looking to tackle as Executive Director?

For me, there’s a focus on equity, including Māori equity (mana ōrite). We have demonstrated combination prevention approach (condoms, PrEP, testing and U=U) works in Aotearoa, now we need to continue the mahi to make sure it can work for everybody and at scale.

We also need to continue dismantling HIV stigma – it is still pervasive and undermines the well-being of those we serve. People living with HIV who are on treatment cannot pass on HIV. Undetectable = Untransmittable.

There’s also much more to do to improve PrEP uptake in general, including ensuring the health workforce is equipped to prescribe it competently and in a way that is affirming for our communities.

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