HIV and AIDS still need public's attention, Bendigo health service says

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There was jubilation this year when Australia’s peak body for HIV research, the Kirby Institute, declared the end of AIDS as public health issue.

Yet ahead of World AIDS Day on December 1, View Street lampposts have been dressed in signs carrying a different message.

“HIV and AIDS are not over,” the VACountry banners read.

Co-ordinator of the regional health service, Harry McAnulty, said the virus would continue to be a concern so long as community members were living with HIV. 

Current figures estimate 25,000 known cases of HIV in Australia. 

A cure was also a long way off, Mr McAnulty said, and it was stigma that remained the biggest challenge for people who had acquired the disease.

They were afraid of the reaction they would receive when disclosing their positive status, and were often shunned by other members of the LGBTI community, he said.

But despite ongoing community fear about HIV and AIDS, the virus was now a controllable illness which did not stop someone from living a long and healthy life.

“It’s not the death sentence it once was,” Mr McAnulty said. 

A suite of World AIDS Day events, organised by VACountry in partnership with other Bendigo health and education services, seek to combat misunderstanding by putting centre stage the voices of people affected by the once-deadly virus. 

An HIV-positive speaker will address attendees at a Bendigo and Districts Aboriginal Co-operative barbecue on Tuesday, while Thursday night will see the launch of documentary PLUS, detailing the experiences of people living with the virus. 

Earlier that afternoon, community members can visit the Bendigo Library to see sections of Victoria’s AIDS quilts, sewn by the loved ones virus victims left behind. 

They were a potent historical record of the carnage caused by HIV and AIDS, Mr McAnulty said.

“It was a way families, friends and relatives could celebrate people’s lives, by sewing together commemorative pieces of art that marked the lives of people who were killed by this virus,” he said.

They were especially powerful artifacts in an era when the LGBTI community were fighting for access to drugs that prevented the transmission of HIV.  

However, the situation was not as optimistic in the developing world. 

As many as 35 million people across the globe have HIV, some of whom Mr McAnulty met on a recent trip to Swaziland with not-for-profit Possible Dreams International. 

Villagers in the African nation were often unable to afford the cost of a bus ticket to hospitals where treatment was available.  

It was another reason HIV must remain in the public’s consciousness, Mr McAnulty said. 

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