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Ending fatigue and complacency

Sun 29 Feb 2004 In: HIV explains the reason behind our hard-hitting HIV Awareness Project and addresses criticisms Judging by the comments in our Message Board service some readers are a little disturbed by the new HIV=AIDS=DEATH logo fronting our HIV awareness month. But now more than ever that message must be at the core of our sexual lives as gay men in New Zealand. When the reality of HIV was in our faces monthly and even daily some years ago we as a community had to deal with that reality. With a combination of in your face, occasionally even gruesome, messages interspersed with more softly-softly supportive messages, along with death notices and general media hyperbole we got the message that HIV was a killer, a real threat and had to be addressed. Then we took on the messages of how to deal with the threat of infection in our lives. Since then, to loosely quote such people as the Michael Stevens (HIV+ and Chair of the NZ AIDS Foundation), Rachel LeMesurier (Exec. Director of the Foundation), Dr Mark Thomas (New Zealand's leading expert in medical treatment of people with HIV) and Bruce Kilmister (HIV+ and Chair of Body Positive, Auckland... the group which deals with the life consequences of HIV in the lives of more people than any other single organisation), fatigue and complacency have set in. Let me amplify on that... The bulk of HIV stories in our own gay media in recent years have been treatment related, not awareness or prevention related. Stories of people living well... glad that meds are available... hoping that scientific research into treatments will continue to keep ahead of the virus... upbeat stories downplaying the reality that nearly all people with HIV will die of an AIDS-related condition sooner or later, and most will die well before their natural time. In the American and Australian media glossy pharmaceutical industry adverts show buffed, tanned handsome men with toothy smiles abseiling, rodeo riding and otherwise leading fabulous lives while taking the latest so-called miracle drugs. Subliminal message: “Having HIV is no great deal.” We've been living in a golden period whereby HIV infection rates remained low and deaths were rare (not like the first phase of the epidemic). Complacency has set in. Getting (or giving) HIV is no longer seen as a death sentence, because there are handfuls of pills to take. And no-one much seems to have HIV anyway... not visibly anyway. Well, if anyone is complacent about the manageability of HIV perhaps they should talk to the rapidly escalating numbers of HIV+ people in NZ for whom all drugs have failed, who are in recent months being rushed to hospital as a consequence of severe HIV-related illnesses, who are nearing death's doorstep. Fatigue has set in. In the late 30s age-group men who have sex with men are, according to the NZAF's research, using condoms (still the best way to avoid transmission) less often than younger people do. This may be behind the emergence of 35-39 year old gay men as a significantly large group in the more-than-disturbing figures released on Friday. Men who already know they should practice safe sex, who know how to have safe sex, who have been gently supported for years into making responsible safe-sex decisions are now (for a bundle of complex reasons I suspect) giving up. There is a place for supportive, informative, gentle education. And there is also a place for the occasional loud, sharp wake up call. If the rapidly rising level of new HIV infections is not time for a loud, sharp wake-up call, I don't know what is. Aggressive doses of reality can be frightening and their effect can wear off if repeated too often or continued too long. You will note that our HIV=AIDS=DEATH logo is tied to a one month campaign in response to the new HIV diagnosis figures. Other organisations and gay media may react differently, may take more time to react. is reacting now and with an up-front in your face message that has not been seen in New Zealand for may years. More supportive, educational messages will follow here and in other media. HIV=AIDS=DEATH is message one. Message two is USE CONDOMS, a long-tested line I expect to explore and continue to promote in due course. But this week, this month, right now, let's wake up to reality, and shake off the cobwebs of fatigue and complacency. To two groups of people who might be disturbed by our forthrightness I say the following... To people who work in HIV prevention education I ask what you have been doing, or not doing, or not doing well enough, for the past five or more years that means that more gay men than ever are contracting HIV and more every year for the past three years. You knew this might happen, it certainly has been happening in similar gay communities overseas and NZ traditionally follows overseas HIV epidemiology trends to some extent sooner or later - generally we have a two year warning. To say that no-one else has found a way to stem this second wave of infections, implying that we haven't done any worse than any other country, is a cop out. When the virus first appeared in the mid ‘80s we (largely guided by expertise and drive emanating from the NZ AIDS Foundation) tackled the problem with energy, insight and expertise, with campaigns that were better than any other countries, that defied ‘conventional wisdom”. It worked. In those days we wanted to do better than other countries. What happened to that attitude? To men coping with HIV infection I realise that this HIV=AIDS=DEATH campaign at confronts a huge difficulty in day to day life. HIV affects my day to day life too, and looking back I realise I have lost nearly every good gay friend I ever had to the virus. (Luckily new friends have emerged to take their place in my life). Time and time again I have seen gay men struggle to fight the virus and associated illnesses, I have helped nurse some who have recovered for the time being and some who have already died. Most of them realised all their infected life that HIV would get them in the end, as it surely did. This is sad, gut-wrenching reality. But we must each learn to accept reality in our lives, even unpleasant reality. However, can we as a community tiptoe around the threat HIV represents to the vast majority of our community in order not to confront the minority (thank heavens that it still is a minority) who have contracted it? Please don't feel I undervalue your way of dealing with HIV, but if your way of dealing with it is to downplay its inevitable consequence don't be offended if we point out that consequence to others who are so far luckier than you and will, hopefully, stay free of HIV. The's hard-hitting response to this second wave of HIV infection surging through our New Zealand gay community may be confrontational and challenging but, as the 93 gay men who were diagnosed in just the past year are coming to terms with HIV it's a deadly reality. These days life with HIV can be made more comfortable and a bit longer, but that's the limit of it. Fatigue and complacency must end. Let's wake up to that right now and start responding damned quick. HIV=AIDS=DEATH is our part of that wake up call. Jay Bennie - 29th February 2004    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Sunday, 29th February 2004 - 12:00pm

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