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HIV - Success vs failure

Fri 29 Nov 2013 In: Health and HIV View at Wayback View at NDHA

This is a big story. It's a story of the biggest and scariest fatal epidemic of modern times, of millions of lives lost or blighted, of governments and leaders who too often bowed to the forces of hatred and ignorance, of occasional successes and colossal failures. It's too often a story of voices of reason and reality railing against a storm of indifference or expedience. It's also a story of gay community voices being most often right and too often ignored. It's a story of how a small country, blessed with geographical advantage, an educated and largely affluent population, and just enough clear-thinking and determined leadership, has consistently got things right more often than just about any other nation on the planet. And it's a story that may explain why the NZ AIDS Foundation is now speaking out in frustration against some of the most influential players in the international and global response to the continuing increase in the spread of HIV amongst gay and bi men around the world. It's a story that will take several days to tell, but it will likely make you proud to be a gay or bi Kiwi and just as frustrated as the NZAF as we look beyond our shores. 'THE GAY PLAGUE' APPEARS There is still some debate about the exact origins of what would come to be called, wrongly and for too long, 'the gay plague.' But there is no debate about when its previously invisible and imperceptible creep around the world first grabbed the attention of doctors, governments and gay communities everywhere. On June 5th, 1981, the USA's Centres for Disease and Prevention Control first reported an unusual outbreak of sicknesses amongst gay American men. Initially called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID, it was also found to be affecting some Haitians and intravenous drug users. Within a year it was more accurately re-named Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. San Francisco, early 1980s It was troubling, bewildering, and unexplainable. But what was undeniable was that in soaring numbers, firstly in North America and soon in Europe, thousands of gay men in their prime were succumbing to appalling opportunistic diseases. Soon, hospital wards in gay meccas like San Francisco, New York, London, Amsterdam, and Berlin were overflowing with cadaverous living skeletons covered in scabs and cancerous lesions, their lungs full of pneumonia. Too often these gay and bisexual men were brought in by their gay friends who would in their turn fall ill and also die horribly. Too often families and even medical institutions would turn their backs on these hundreds of thousands of suffering, dying outcasts of society. By mid-1984 there was a consensus amongst frantic but poorly-resourced researchers in France and the USA that behind AIDS lay a newly-identified and incredibly deadly virus which would by common scientific consent a year later be dubbed Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. It was impossible to control, let alone eradicate. Once infected and subsequently diagnosed, terrified and frequently lonely gay men waited out their death sentences, measured more often in months than in years. Most governments, goaded on by homophobic religious and political opportunists, reacted with arrogance, fear and short-sightedness. To reassure their populations they made sure everyone knew this unfolding disaster was centred on homosexuals and surely the result of our illegal, immoral and perverted practices. It was just, or divine, retribution and the homos who broke the law by loving and fucking each other deserved what they were getting. So long as decent straight people didn't consort with those homos or touch them or show sympathy for them the real world would be ok. GAY COMMUNITIES FIGHT BACK Frantically, gay male communities around the western world, aided and abetted by lesbians, enlightened social reformers and clear-sighted clinicians fought to care for the dying and to build workable responses to slow the spread of inevitable death. They warned that it wasn't just gays being infected, that there were growing populations in Africa, Asia, and sub-groups in Europe and North America who were also going down in increasing numbers. But the big money, the real leadership and the most-needed voices in the major western capitals, particularly in the USA, basically weren't listening. Silent: US President Ronald Reagan Even in the early 1980s no respectable person who wanted to remain in public office listened to homos. Ridiculous! It was politically expedient to ignore the unfolding tragedy, even to further victimise the victims. Infamously, US President Ronald Regan - on whose watch HIV emerged, became visible and ran rampant, but who was politically in thrall to extreme conservative and religious political influences - never once publicly mentioned the biggest health disaster affecting his and other nations during his entire two terms of office. Imagine, if you will, a global pandemic of deadly and incurable SARS or Bird Flu initially centred on the USA and Barack Obama not saying a word, ever. Around the northern hemisphere once-proud and liberated gay western communities tried to defend themselves with sensible precautions and clear thinking. They had to make it up as they went along, sometimes getting things wrong but, in retrospect, almost always getting it right. Most of their public health authorities tended to shoot from the hip with half-baked but socially acceptable policies. Against all gay advice, for instance, they too often cracked down on any places gay men met formally or informally for their still-criminalised sexual encounters. For it was now known that HIV amongst gays was primarily transmitted sexually. In waves of self-righteousness reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition, they eliminated the one sure path of reaching, educating and protecting sexually active gay men. Shutting down bathhouses and cruising spots with their volunteer-supplied condoms and photocopied information sheets, stiffling desperately-needed communication channels, was a guaranteed way to help the HIV epidemic spread even faster. In fact, it exploded. NZ'S COMPLACENCY ENDS Vocal: gay man Bruce Burnett As the first reports of trouble emerged, in our part of the world we seemed to have escaped the disaster for a time. Then, suddenly, there were reports of cases of HIV and AIDS in Australia, particularly Sydney and Melbourne. Then, in 1984, New Zealand registered its first death from still-untreatable HIV infection which had progressed to AIDS. Two lone voices, gay man Bruce Burnett, recently returned unwell from the UK, and Auckland infectious diseases expert Rod Ellis-Pegler, began trying to convince New Zealand, and gay New Zealanders in particular, that they were in serious danger. Only mildly stirred by the horror stories which were starting to dominate the international news in almost the same way Middle-Eastern unrest continues to do today, health bureaucrats here shelled out a few government dollars to conduct a handful of sample tests. Blood from a couple of dozen willing but anxious gay men, mostly from Auckland and Wellington, were flown to Sydney, the only place in the southern hemisphere where the complex and expensive tests could be done. The results were staggering. The majority of those men were already infected. HIV was already here. In fact, it had been here for some time. Belatedly, New Zealand's response to HIV and AIDS began in earnest. In some ways it would echo the worst of what was happening in Europe and the USA. But more often it was enlightened, reasoned and well-supported by those who mattered in positions of power and influence. The New Zealand way of addressing the HIV epidemic amongst gay men was, compared to overseas efforts, stunningly successful right from the start. But it was a struggle to keep it on track, to fight off those who sought to derail what is still arguably the most enduringly successful programme of HIV prevention amongst men who have sex with men anywhere in the world. Tomorrow, in part two of this feature series, we will explain what would become 'the New Zealand way' of curtailing the spread of HIV amongst gay and bi men. We'll seek to understand how, regardless of its success, 'the New Zealand way' was then increasingly sidelined from mainstream international practices. And we'll observe how even our nearest neighbour took a different and far less successful route. To the point that the NZ AIDS Foundation, a gay-initiated and gay community-mandated organisation, is now publicly highlighting the failure of most overseas programmes and its - our - successes. CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO Jay Bennie - 29th November 2013

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Friday, 29th November 2013 - 12:23pm

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