The heavy rain failed to dampen the spirits of the HIV community as more than 100 people came together to launch World AIDS Day 2017at the Doherty Institute.

Living Positive Victoria President Christabel Millar was the Master of Ceremonies and presented a sombre reflection of the past and the excitement of the future for HIV as each speaker reflected on this year’s theme: HIV is still here and still matters.

The audience took a minute of silence to honour the recent passing of Levinia Cooks, an HIV activist and loyal ally of the HIV community in Australia. Keynote speaker Professor Jenny Hoy shared her journey as an HIV practitioner that spans decades. The personal story of Adam Ehm was powerful as he illustrated the reality of the stigma that people living with HIV (PLHIV) face. Although he is much more confident about disclosing his status, he reminded us that it’s not the same for everyone and that “HIV and stigma still runs deep. We need to respect each individual’s right to disclose their status and their confidentiality.”

The personal narratives of PLHIV have been a powerful force in challenging HIV stigma and educating the general public. The raw emotions elicited by the stories told on World AIDS day moved many in the audience to tears.

Victorian Health Minster Jill Hennessy made several announcements that would strengthening the governments’ commitment to the Victorian HIV response.  First, the Victorian government is endorsing the Undetectable = Untransmissible (U=U) consensus statement that people living with HIV cannot transmit the virus. Living Positive Victoria was the first Australian organisation to support the international statement in February 2017 and now the Victorian Government is the first Australian state to endorse the statement.

The Victorian Government will also support Living Positive Victoria to implement a $300,000 pilot project that would put HIV positive peer-workers in high-caseload clinics to better equip those who are newly diagnosed. The crowd’s reaction to these announcements was electric and Christabel couldn’t contain her excitement exclaiming “OMG! Is it OK to hug the Minster for Health?!”

This funding is in addition to a $50,000 Positive Action Community Grant awarded to Living Positive Victoria by ViiV Healthcare in October to include peer workers in high-caseload clinics.

In addition, the Minister also promised improvements and changes to pre and post-test counselling training requirements to facilitate the increased rollout of peer-based HIV testing.

The community forum followed the launch, and key members of the HIV community discussed the theme ‘From the Grim Reaper to U=U’. Panellists Professor Sharon Lewin (The Doherty Institute), Chris Lemoh (Monash Health physician), Richard Keane (former President of Living Positive Victoria), and Christabel Millar gave their individual perspectives about how the response has evolved and what the future holds. All panellists clearly articulated that the U=U message is truly ground-breaking for the positive community because people no longer have to fear that they will pass on HIV to their partners.

The role of stigma today was also debated. It is evident that with the rise of such clear cut science and HIV biomedical interventions that HIV-related stigma should be on the decline. The panel agreed that there should be fewer stigma related issues; however, new communities are being affected by HIV and the power of stigma continues to be a barrier. The audience engaged in a lively discussion with the panellists around topics including how U=U is understood among other communities outside gay men and men who have sex with men (MSM), how other affected communities (including trans men and women and youth) can get involved in the response, the need for a vaccine and the HIV response in rural Victoria.

Thanks to all of our partners and sponsors for making this day a success.

  • Victorian Government 
  • The Burnet Institute 
  • The Doherty Institute 
  • JOY 94.9
  • Victorian AIDS Council 
  • The Alfred
  • Positive Women Victoria
  • mHIVE
  • Victorian African Health Action Network 
  • Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health 
  • ViiV Healthcare

 

Photography by Burke Photography