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25 Years: A mysterious killer

Tue 31 Aug 2010 In: True Stories View at Wayback View at NDHA

The New Zealand AIDS Foundation is marking 25 years since its formation in September 1985. Jacqui Stanford sat down with Tony Hughes, a man who was among the NZAF's pioneers and remains with the organisation to this day. He has much to share about the 25 years of the NZAF, but his story starts in 1983, the year of the first AIDS-related death in New Zealand ... and the year he began to investigate what was then seen as a mysterious killer. Tony Hughes In 1983 there were more than 3,000 AIDS cases in the USA, and almost 1,300 deaths. Little was known about the disease – HIV had not yet been defined and the transmission methods were unclear. Yet people were dying. It was in Easter of that year that Tony Hughes says he became aware of what was happening in San Francisco and as a gay man thought, "this is a problem. And this is something it would be a good idea to know something about." Hughes, a trained biologist who was working in conservation, had already been interested in the impact STIs were having on sexually-active gay men in the late 70s and early 80s, especially overseas. "And so when HIV came along I thought, 'well I'm going to learn a bit about this'." He spent many hours in 1983 studying what was known at the Medical School library, as prevention messages began to emerge from the gay community, such as the December 1983 National Gay Rights Coalition leaflet, AIDS: Choices and Chances. There was still much mystery around the illness. There was suspicion that blood and semen were involved in transmission, but a virus was only one of several possible explanations. By 1984, Hughes says things had become enormously more serious. Gay New Zealander Bruce Burnett, who had lived overseas, came back from San Francisco and started setting up the AIDS Support Networks around the country, while Hughes got together with Dr Ian Scott, plus a virologist and an immunologist from the Medical School, to try and figure out exactly what they were dealing with. Margaret Heckler It was in April 1984 that United States Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler announced that the National Cancer Institute had isolated the virus which caused AIDS, and that there would soon be a commercially available test able to detect the virus with "essentially 100 percent certainty". She also announced that they hoped to have a vaccine ready for testing in about two years. "It was an exceptionally scary time," Hughes reflects. "I mean in a sense we had a great advantage in New Zealand – we are so geographically isolated," he says. "You can actually see it coming at you. Whereas in San Francisco in the very early days, by the mid-80s, about 50 percent of gay men in San Francisco were already infected," he says. "A lot of those people were infected before anyone knew anything was even happening." Hughes says New Zealanders watched what was happening in San Francisco, LA, New York, London and Sydney and made prevention an extreme urgency, so the same thing did not happen here. He says because of the great work of pioneers such as Bruce Burnett, they started off with an AIDS support programme before there were many people who had the disease – and prevention was already being pushed. "It was fairly clear to people, from fairly early on, who were in the know, that whatever this was it was sexually transmitted." Hughes says this meant safe sex guidelines, developed to deal with syphilis and gonorrhoea in San Francisco, were used as a starting point to see if they worked. "They were about body fluid management. They were about not getting body fluids inside, either orally or anally, and so it was slogans like 'on him, not in him' as far as body fluids transmission was concerned." Burnett had the AIDS Support Network operating in Auckland, while Bill Logan and Phil Parkinson had done the same in Wellington. They realised to receive Government support they had to form a national charitable trust, which they did in March 1985. The AIDS Support Network Trust received its first Government grant in April, $105,000 to run an information programme. "All those sort of threads started coming together; prevention, support, worrying about the effect on groups like gay men, human rights issues – and trying to understand the epidemic. They all started to flow together," Hughes says. As the charitable trust was created, Hughes was among more than 2,000 people at the first international conference on AIDS in Atlanta. His trip was paid for thanks to the financial muscle of Brett Sheppard and Tony Katavich of the brawny 'Out' gay business empire. Hughes used what he learned at the conference to update the safe-sex guidelines with the latest information –which was used in the first Government funded campaigns. It was in September 1985 that the trust was renamed the New Zealand AIDS Foundation. Bruce Burnett had died in June.     Jacqui Stanford - 31st August 2010

Credit: Jacqui Stanford

First published: Tuesday, 31st August 2010 - 12:58pm

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