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Communities and people will end HIV in NZ

Tue 17 May 2016 In: HIV View at Wayback View at NDHA

The following is a speech by outgoing NZ AIDS Foundation Executive Director Shaun Robinson delivered on Sunday at the HIV Candlelight Memorial remembrance service. St Matthews holds many special memories for me from the last five years when I have been Executive Director of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation, a role that I will shortly be leaving. It is a space where I feel I have been very privileged to be invited to stand amongst communities that I am not directly part of, and to witness the strength, the courage, the hurt and the grief many have experienced. I recall my first transgender remembrance service, the celebration of Carmen's life, and of course the Candlelight Memorials. All of these events have touched me deeply and been a chance to take in the wonder of the diversity of human existence and the pain of intolerance and oppression. My focus has been on HIV and AIDS and I am old enough to remember the 1980s. Responding to the virus has been integrally bound to LGBT rights, law reform and the struggle against homophobia and transphobia. The community has come so far and so much has been achieved regarding HIV that many young people have no concept of the horror that was AIDS. Candlelight is so important because it provides a key time to remember and to consider the whole 30 years of epidemic. In my five years I have witnessed a great deal of change and seen the growing potential to actually end new infections. Condoms have kept HIV at very low levels in New Zealand and they remain key to prevention. Yet they have not been enough to stop the epidemic. 2015 will see the highest number of new diagnoses ever – it will be a small number by world standards but a rising number. Thankfully better medication and testing give us additional ways to stop infections. The majority of people living with the virus will reach an undetectable viral load when on treatment and this dramatically reduces their chance of passing on HIV. If we can test more and diagnose the 600 people who have the virus but don't know it, and if we can offer these people immediate treatment, then this will cut new infections considerably. If we added PrEP tot he equation then we could get everything working towards an end to the epidemic within ten years! This is very technical and is full of a lot of “ifs”. The opportunity is totally real. However, condoms, treatment and PrEP will mean nothing without the biggest asset: the community. In five years of scientific change that community has changed as well. I have seen the different organisations come together much more with a greater sense of common ground on what needs to happen. We have moved from “either or” debates to a “both and” approach where every action and perspective adds value. But beyond the organisations are the people. The LGBT community has a massive history of working together to change society, yet at times this power can slip away and become unfocused. It is time again for everyone to get on-board. There is a place for every gay or bi man or trans person to take action to end HIV – even if you don't use condoms. There is also the need for solidarity, not stigma of any sort. HIV will not be ended while people are scared to come out, or are afraid to test because they will be treated so badly by their peers if they test positive. It will not end if the community does not embrace the different experiences of different cultures and sexualities. From what I have seen in five years, I think this can be done. I think the GLBT community has the guts and the compassion and the need to be an on-going force for social change. And that change will end HIV. There would be no better way that the community could honour those who have gone before. - Shaun Robinson. Shaun Robinson - 17th May 2016    

Credit: Shaun Robinson

First published: Tuesday, 17th May 2016 - 7:50am

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