With the annual number of new HIV infections for last year at its highest level since the epidemic began and more people than ever living with the disease New Zealand's HIV/AIDS organisations are ramping up their campaign to counter the stigma those with HIV often face in the community.
Most of those living with HIV in New Zealand are gay and bisexual men. At the Sunday evening launch of the lead-up to World AIDS Day, December 1st, gay HIV-positive man Charlie Tredway, recently returned to NZ from Australia and now a new staffer at the NZ AIDS Foundation, spoke passionately about the need to end stigma and for people to be able get on to effective medications and medical support immediately after an HIV diagnosis.
Currently, despite World Health organisation guidelines, the NZ health system does not fund access to anti-HIV medications until people's health indicators have dropped to a level now considered inappropriate by health professionals.
On Sunday evening Tredway said:
âWorld AIDS Day golds great personal significance for me, especially as now it marks the decade I have spent living with HIV and the one year anniversary of my decision to go public about my status on social media and in an interview with Australian gay website SameSame.
On the surface it was a flippant decision, I didn't spend days weighing up the pros and cons and possible ramifications my extremely public disclosure could have, or ultimately how it would change me as a person.
I just remember being tired of the occasional offensive HIV or AIDS joke or comment popping up in my facebook feed. Tired of seeing the media make faux-pas in their language choices and sensationalist headlines used in telling our stories and speaking about the virus. Tired of seeing innocuous yet stigmatising messages like 'Clean-You be too' in dating profiles. Above all else I was tired of feeling like because of my HIV+ status I wasn't able to live my life with transparency and be more than the virus.
So, true to my own personal style, in a fit of reactionary pique I wanted to use whatever platform I had at my disposal to start challenging the ignorance, misconceptions and stigma that still even to this day surround HIV.
In my post I said âIt's World AIDS Day so what better time to finally be honest and upfront about it. My name is Charlie and I'm HIV positive and I've never been healthier in my adult life.â I chose those words because I wanted to convert the narrative that we are sick people with lesser lives, but I also wanted to address how sick I was when I started treatment.
Two years prior to my post I nearly died from HIV-related complications. I had been mismanaging my health for eight years and when I finally got hooked into the system and saw a specialist I had a viral load of three million and a CD4 count of two (naturally I named them something awful).
I also had a plethora of other health complications that go hand in hand with having a non-existent immune system and was hospitalised an obscene number of times in the space of a year.
I am thankful that every single day in that period, regardless of how sick I was, I managed to avoid any of the AIDS-defining illnesses that would have changed my bleak situation into something truly dire.
I knew I had to come home to New Zealand and focus solely on getting my health in order and in over two years of religiously adhering to treatment and putting my life on hold I have finally started to gain traction and see real improvement in my blood test results.
Not only has this experience made me firmly pro-choice on starting medication whenever we damn well please, and ideally sooner rather than later, it has also ignited a sense of peace with my HIV status and a passion for involvement and a desire to channel my new-found energy into combating misconceptions and stigma, and making living with HIV something invisible so we can have dialogue and accomplish the work we still have left to do.â
Charlie Tredway was a participant in an
anti-HIV stigma campaign launched earlier this year, you can view the
campaign video here.