PAN-PACIFIC HIV CONFERENCE 'EYE-OPENING AND INSPIRATIONAL'
HIV positive people, educators and support workers from around the Pacific gathered in Auckland last week to discuss the realities of HIV in this part of the world. Bain Duigan observed the conference from within and filed this report to GayNZ.com.
AUCKLAND (GayNZ.com/Pacific Media Watch): The four-day Pan-Pacific Gathering for HIV+ People 2008 got off to a great start this past week with a welcoming powhiri at Waipapa Marae, which was in stark contrast to the unwelcoming suggestion from Niue's director of health, Dr Sitaleki Finau, that the Pacific's positive people should be isolated on islands similar to leper colonies.
That shocking statement formed a backdrop for the conference and was a reminder to the more than 100 delegates from all over the Pacific, including Papua New Guinea and Australia, that prejudice and backward ideas still exist.
Media interest in the conference was high because of Dr Finau's comments, prompting TVNZ to send along two camera crews to the conference's opening day to gauge reaction.
Conference organiser Bruce Kilmister, CEO of Body Positive Auckland, stated publicly that "Dr Finau needs to educate himself first before he makes such ridiculous comments."
Speaking to GayNZ.com during the conference, a spokesperson for the Niuean government eventually distanced Niue's law and policy-makers from Finau's statement.
Day two of the conference, Wednesday, started with the especially topical theme of Human Rights.
Rosslyn Noonan, New Zealand's Chief Human Rights Commissioner, acknowledged the importance of Eve van Grafthorst, the six-year-old banned from an Australian kindergarten in 1986 because she had AIDS and who was subsequently embraced by a New Zealand kindergarten in Napier.
"Eve and her mother's contribution was in teaching New Zealand about AIDS through the bravery of being open," Noonan said. "They are an example of people who have made human rights real."
Former NZ AIDS Foundation head Warren Lindberg then spoke of how "human rights violations can clearly result in ill-health"
On Thursday, the delegates heard reaction to last year's controversial 'Swiss Statement' - "That individuals on effective treatment with an undetectable viral load and no sexually transmitted infections and good adherence to their drugs could consider unprotected sex as being as safe as using condoms."
Guest speaker John Rock from the Asia-Pacific Network Of People Living With HIV/AIDS explained the statement was only ever meant to be delivered to Swiss patients to enable them to discuss risk-taking with steady heterosexual partners. The conclusions were based on vaginal sex, not anal sex, so may not be relevant to men who have sex with men.
Peter Saxton, a NZ AIDS Foundation researcher, added: "It's a scandal that no further research has been undertaken in regard to how anal sex (rather than vaginal sex) relates to the Swiss Statement parameters of undetectable viral load, no sexually transmitted infections, drug adherence, to put the Swiss Statement in context."
Fellow researcher Tony Hughes from the NZAF then gave an overview on HIV and sexually transmitted infections among men who have sex with men. Delegates heard that in Auckland for the year ending July 2007 there were 92 cases of syphilis infection, 44 of which were detected in men who have sex with men and 4 of whom were HIV positive.
Hughes also brought the conference delegates up to date on how hepatitis C is emerging as a significant sexually transmitted infection in parts of Europe.
The conference was opened jointly by NZ's Minister of Pacific Island Affairs, Luamanuvao Winnie Laban and Papua New Guinea's first female cabinet minister, Dame Carol Kidu.
Other prominent New Zealand politicians added their weight to the conference, with lesbian MP Louisa Wall moderating the Human Rights session and Education Minister Chris Carter formally thanking the delegates during the closing ceremonies.
Workshops and sessions were held in different streams but a common theme to emerge over the four days was the difficulty many Pacific people face in disclosing their HIV+ status because of fears of discrimination, sometimes involving violence, for those in countries such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands.
Bruce Kilmister referred to that theme when he reflected on the conference as it ended yesterday afternoon.
"A highlight for me has been understanding more about the complexities that exist in indigenous settings in countries only a short flight away from New Zealand," he said.
"The stories we have heard have been both eye-opening and inspirational.
"The Pan Pacific 2008 HIV Conference has given us all new strength in our fight against HIV/AIDS. There is definitely more work to be done by all of us in the Pacific!"