Wagga not immune from HIV stigma: Positive Life NSW

LEAD THE WAY: Positive Life NSW chief executive Craig Cooper wants to see HIV stigmas eradicated in regional areas. Picture: Supplied

LEAD THE WAY: Positive Life NSW chief executive Craig Cooper wants to see HIV stigmas eradicated in regional areas. Picture: Supplied

The head of an HIV advocacy group has called on regional people to end the stigma tied to those diagnosed with HIV.

It comes after a controversial column was published in the Advertiserwhich appeared to link an increase in HIV diagnosis to same-sex marriage.

Positive Life NSW chief executive Craig Cooper said such views were not helpful and only added to the “isolation” felt by HIV positive people in regional communities.

Mr Cooper said availability of services was not a problem in regional cities such as Wagga – but, worryingly, it was “who to turn to” after diagnosis.

“In metropolitan Sydney, for example, it’s easier to be invisible,” he said. 

“The main concern in regional areas is how the general public is going to react to a HIV positive person in their community – they ask, where do they fit in?”

Mr Cooper said the stigma can put people off seeking a test for HIV for fear they will become victimised.

“HIV testing is crucial … if we can get a positive diagnosis sooner rather than later it can lead to better health outcomes,” he said. “It’s really important to get that head start.”

Statewide figures released by NSW Health show HIV testing continues to increase – but localised figures for Murrumbidgee Local Health District (MLHD) were not available.

MLHD and HIV and related programs manager Alison Nikitas said rates of testing had “certainly” improved thanks to concerted health campaigns. However, Ms Nikitas said many people in the health district were concerned about the long-term social consequences of seeking help. “A lot of people are very concerned,” she said.

“People are very worried in rural areas about the confidentiality of HIV testing, but HIV is confidential as is all medical testing.”

Ms Nikitas said HIV testing was one of the “key components” of public health service efforts to arrest the infection early on.

“We’ve implemented HIV testing week … and that’s really about trying to promote HIV testing overall,” she said. “We do want to those education programs to take off and to reduce that discrimination and stigma surrounding HIV. HIV is a treatable condition.”

Mr Cooper echoed those calls and agreed education was the best path forward.

“It really does have its origins community education to be seen as everybody else,” he said.

The city’s sexual health clinic is located on Brookong Avenue and can be phoned on 6925 2973. Some people may not be aware they have HIV and may not have symptoms, so regular testing according to risk profile is recommended.