HIV diagnoses in Australia have reached an all-time low, and the country is on the verge of eliminating transmissions. According to Gary Nunn of Sydney, it’s a result of Australia’s quick and successful response.
A political acquaintance of then-Health Minister Neal Blewett had a word in his ear during the outbreak in the 1980s.
“Look, pal,” he continued, “there are no votes in partnering with these [guys].”
He was alluding to gay males, sex workers, and drug addicts, all of whom have been severely affected by the virus.
According to experts, Australia’s outstanding HIV/AIDS response owes a lot to politicians and other important decision-makers giving these populations a seat at the table.
According to author Nick Cook, it was a remarkable “leap of faith.”
“Because homosexuality was still illegal in some Australian jurisdictions,” he explains, “all three groups were stigmatised criminals; society’s most despised.”
“It was also a wise strategy: during an epidemic, the government couldn’t be seen spending money on teaching gay men how to have sex or drug addicts how to inject safely. They could, however, channel funds to reputable community organisations that could help.”
‘A model nation’
As the 40th anniversary of Australia’s first HIV diagnosis approaches, two new books examine what makes the country’s celebrated public health response so unique.
Cook’s Fighting for Our Lives follows the above-mentioned partnership, while three Australian professors’ In The Eye Of The Storm highlights the under-reported stories of those who volunteered in large numbers to alleviate suffering.
By the end of the 1980s, the World Health Organization had hailed Australia as a preventative model for other countries to follow.
It was one of the few countries to avoid an injecting drug epidemic, with rates five to ten times lower than in several European countries and parts of the United States.
Infections among female sex workers in Australia were quite rare. Women account for 50% of those living with HIV worldwide; in Australia, this figure is at 10%.
“The fast introduction of a needle exchange by [then] Prime Minister Bob Hawke was considerably ahead of other countries,” says Eamonn Murphy, UNAIDS deputy executive director for programmes.
“The Australian reaction was one of the most effective because it included the most impacted community – particularly gay males – at every stage, from design to execution to assessment, research, and funding.”
Cook claims that Australia’s remote location gave the virus a “head start”; the infection came later.
There was also a newly organised and empowered community ready to take action: the inaugural Sydney Mardi Gras protest march, held in 1978, brought together many LGBTQ+ community organisations.
According to Dr. Shirleene Robinson, this established the conditions for people to volunteer in such large numbers.
“The infrastructure was already in place: publications, relationships, and organisations that could be oriented toward the epidemic,” explains the co-author of In the Eye of the Storm.
Volunteers, many of whom were terminally ill or bereaved, provided in-home care for the sick and dying, operated needle exchanges and telephone helplines, created educational resources, served on boards of directors, and offered friendship and practical assistance.
They assisted HIV/Aids patients in navigating a hostile medical system that had previously classified gay men as mentally ill and in need of treatment.
For individuals who had never done so before, the Victorian Aids Council held training seminars on how to care for dying persons.