40 years of HIV – Where to next?

40 years of HIV – Where to next? was the theme for World AIDS Day 2021, and official events in Victoria commenced with good news from State Health Minister, The Hon Martin Foley.

“Forty years on from Australia’s first case of HIV, Victoria’s HIV notifications are at their lowest rates in 20 years,” Mr Foley announced in delivering the Opening Address for World AIDS Day.

“Where to next? Well, for Victoria, this is maintaining and improving our world leadership, HIV partnership model and response, to achieve our bold vision of the virtual elimination of new HIV transmissions by 2025.”

Mr Foley commended the efforts of people living with HIV, as well as their friends, partners, communities, researchers and clinicians who have helped bring about positive change.

Image: Victorian Health Minister, The Hon Martin Foley delivers the World AIDS Day Opening Address

Members of the Living Positive Victoria Speakers Bureau shared their personal experiences with HIV in a World AIDS Day panel discussion chaired by Professor Jen Power from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at LaTrobe University.

Darren Massey spoke of his journey from first being diagnosed, to now successfully living with the virus.

“I was originally told I had only six years to live when I was 28 and diagnosed in 2000,” Mr Massey said.

“I wouldn’t have known that now I’d be sitting here talking to people about my life and the joys of life. Now I can pretty much live unaffected by it. I know that I can’t pass it to my HIV negative sexual partners.”

“I am now able to help other people who are newly diagnosed or struggling.”

Heather Ellis also overcame the initial challenges and has gone on to thrive.

“When I was diagnosed in 1995, it was a year before the discovery of effective HIV treatments, so then it was a death sentence. I was given five years to live. There was no hope on the horizon,” Ms Ellis said.

“But now I’m a mother to three boys, with a professional career and am a published author.”

Image: The World AIDS Day panel discussion with members of LPV’s Positive Speakers Bureau

However, while treatments and quality of life have improved drastically over the last 40 years, she believes much of the stigma remains.

“The one thing that we are still living with is HIV-related stigma,” Ms Ellis said.

“And that does affect all people living with HIV, particularly in terms of finding an intimate relationship and that fear of being rejected.

“That really goes to the heart of what it means to be human.

“That’s the next step. I think we really do need to sort out HIV related stigma now. It shouldn’t be here after 40 years. It hasn’t really changed.”

This was an issue discussed in more detail in the World AIDS Day Community Forum, which looked ahead to HIV in 2031.

Living Positive Victoria CEO Richard Keane said greater advocacy is needed to educate the broader population to understand that people on effective HIV treatment cannot pass on the virus.

“The burden of addressing those issues falls on the shoulders of people living with HIV disproportionately,” Mr Keane said.

“That’s understandable, because we’re the most impacted. We want to see that change.

“I think that sometimes, if you’re not directly affected by HIV, you can kind of switch off to those messages about HIV-positive people talking about the stigma and discrimination, because it’s not your lived experience.

“I think we need some really strong advocacy and strong leadership to extend those pieces of information out into the broader context.”

World AIDS Day is held on 1 December each year.

It raises awareness across the world and in the community about the issues surrounding HIV and AIDS and it’s a day for people to show their support for people living with HIV and to commemorate people who have died.

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