by Liz Walker, WA AIDS Council Positive Peer Educator
The HIV diagnosis rate in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has increased in the past five years and in 2014 the notification rate was 1.6 times higher for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population than the non-Indigenous population (5.9 versus 3.7 per 100,000). We also know that it’s much easier to contract HIV when someone already has a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI). Of particular concern is the syphilis outbreak moving across northern Australia. In 2014, the infectious syphilis notification rate in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population was 4 times higher than the non-Indigenous population, increasing to 300 times higher in remote areas.
The Kimberley, located in northern WA is battling this syphilis outbreak and where there is syphilis there is concern HIV might also get a foot hold. There is a need to strengthen focus on prevention in this vulnerable population and a need for higher testing and treatment. As James Ward, an Indigenous health researcher says ‘we have the tools to address HIV, but how do we ensure that the latest HIV prevention methods and knowledge is reaching our communities?'
Yarn and build connection
AIDS Councils around Australia are predominately big city-centric. The WA AIDS Council is no different, yet we recognise the desire and genuine thirst of rural and remote communities in Western Australia to participate in HIV awareness and for health care workers to seek best blood-borne virus (BBV) practice.
Perhaps one of the best ways to raise awareness is to start a conversation. That’s where the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HIV Awareness Week (ATSIHAW) comes in. ATSIHAW began in 2014. Only in its second year it is already well recognised as a key event for raising awareness and mobilising action to address HIV among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
The Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services (KAMS) secured an organisational development grant via the Sexual Health and Blood-borne Virus Program. This allowed myself and Matt Armstrong the Workforce Development Officer from Hepatitis WA to head up the Kimberley for a BBV tour during ATSIHAW. We spent a week presenting in Broome, Derby, Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek, supported by Amanda Sibosado the KAMS Sexual Health Coordinator.
As an education officer I provided the latest in HIV research to health care workers, including Treatment as Prevention (TasP), Pre Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and the UNAIDS global target of 90:90:90. As a women living with HIV I provided a personal perspective to community members, exploring disclosure, HIV stigma and highlighting the importance of safe sex and injecting practices and knowing your HIV status i.e. ask for a HIV test . For many it was an eye opening experience and their first time meeting a person living with HIV. At times, community members were surprised and thrilled to hear someone share their story on a subject that most would consider too private to tell. The benefit of such open and honest disclosure was seeing fear fall away, stigma challenged and compassion created.
It was my second time to the Kimberley for HIV awareness work and my fourth time personally. Every time I take away something extra, the beautiful landscapes, the Aboriginal culture or appreciation of the people who are so committed to this unique corner of Australia. A personal highlight this time included visiting almost every available Aboriginal art centre on route and coming back with some beautiful treasures from local artists, including a painting from the Warlayirti Artists Aboriginal Corporation in Balgo and an exquisite silk scarf from Laarri Gallery in Halls Creek.
The road is long
The journey to ending HIV is a long one, but undoubted we have moved far from the dark days of the 80’s. The Kimberley BBV road trip was no different. Great distances were travelled, long days with 6am starts and 9pm finishes, repetitive presentations where you wonder “have I said that already?” session times that changed and sometimes even venues too!
In my work as an educator I know the importance of flexibility, patience and appropriately pitching content to your audience, whether that be to a team of skilled doctors, homeless people or a group of at risk youth. What I truly believe in is starting a conversation, making connections, sharing stories and building capacity. The communities in the Kimberley are undoubtedly eager and passionate to raise awareness of STIs and BBV that effect their vulnerable populations and so it seems fitting then that the ATSIHAW slogan for the week was ‘you and me can end HIV’.
Liz Walker is the HIV-positive Peer Educator at the WA AIDS Council. She supports people living with HIV (PLHIV), facilitates events and workshops for PLHIV and is public speaker in WA.