World AIDS Day

In Parliament, Motions

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (21:13): I seek leave to move Notice of Motion, Private Business, No. 8 in an amended form.

Leave granted.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: I move:

That this council—

1. Recognises that each year on 1 December we commemorate World AIDS Day; and

2. Recommits to end AIDS by 2030.

I rise because today marks the 34th occurrence of World AIDS Day and this year marks 40 years since AIDS was first diagnosed as a disease. World AIDS Day was an initiative started by the World Health Organization and later taken over by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) with the intention of driving action to reduce the level of transmissions and deaths and to combat the stigma against HIV and ensure that people living with it are afforded their best life.

This year, the theme of World AIDS Day is ‘End inequalities. End AIDS. End pandemics’. We are currently living in a time when the AIDS pandemic is intersecting with COVID-19 and, much like with COVID-19, it is only through leaders and communities coming together and working as a collective focused on the needs of the people that this AIDS pandemic can be overcome, as it must.

The world has made some truly great strides in combating HIV over the years and ensuring that HIV is now no longer a death sentence; however, as well as celebrating that progress made, World AIDS Day also offers us an opportunity to reflect upon and highlight how far we still have to go. According to the World Health Organization, as of 2020 there were approximately 37.7 million people living with HIV, 1.5 million of whom were newly infected that year, and over half a million deaths.

Currently, approximately 73 per cent of people living with HIV are receiving long-term antiretroviral therapy to assist with the strengthening of HIV patients’ immune systems and helping them live a long and healthy life. The past few years have seen countries across the world adopt a treat-all strategy for providing lifelong antiretroviral therapy to all with HIV. This is a great step forward and one that is helping millions, but there is such a long way to go when it comes to expanding that treatment, particularly amongst children and adolescents. This is made more dire by COVID-19, of course, as these essential treatments have in some areas faltered or become more difficult to consistently maintain during the other pandemic.

It is integral that we recommit to tackling this health crisis and to ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030, as laid out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We must tackle both COVID-19 and HIV in tandem and account for the issues COVID-19 presents for those living with HIV. We must ensure that all people living with HIV are given equal access to the necessary treatment and care and we must commit to ensure no-one is left behind.

But one of the sad truths is, of course, that HIV is heavily stigmatised and continues to be. In preparation for this year’s World AIDS Day, a survey conducted by the UK revealed that public understanding around HIV is truly abysmal. This survey showed that one in five people thought you could contract HIV through kissing and only 16 per cent of people knew that someone with HIV on effective treatment could not pass the virus on and could live a happy and healthy life.

Most shockingly, the survey showed that two-thirds of the people who were surveyed claimed to feel no sympathy for people living with HIV, regardless of how they contracted it. A study conducted in Australia earlier this year confirms that this similar stigma exists here in Australia. It is particularly targeted towards people from ethnically diverse backgrounds and that stigma has been connected to real impacts—tangible impacts—on their health and wellbeing.

The level of education and awareness surrounding HIV is severely lacking. Indeed, in my generation the education was enormous, but we have lost our way on that. If we are to achieve that goal of eradicating new HIV transmissions and HIV-related deaths by 2030, we have to do our part to improve. I commend all sides of this parliament for their previous efforts and note in particular the work of the current Minister for Health and Wellbeing in ensuring access to medications, which I lobbied for some years ago under the Weatherill government.

We must all work towards eliminating the persisting stigma and realise that this virus can be contracted in so many ways but dispel the myths that still pervade about ways that it cannot be contracted. World AIDS Day is an important day on which to celebrate the milestones we have already reached and to reflect on those we have yet to. I always find this issue quite personal. I lost a dear friend who contracted HIV when he was young due to a blood transfusion and who died as a result of complications. He was a musician. His name was Baterz. He was a bit of a folk music icon of both Canberra and Adelaide.

In his memory, I often think of all the great talent that he had and the contribution that he could have made. Perhaps if the stigma, the awareness and indeed the treatments had been a little quicker in coming, he would have lived to be in his fifties, as he would now be, but we lost him some two decades ago. With that, I commend the motion.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (21:19): I rise in support of the motion moved by my colleague the Hon. Tammy Franks. This year’s World AIDS Day marks 40 years since the beginning of the AIDS crisis and 30 years since the red ribbon came to represent the international symbol of AIDS awareness. Despite the significant strides that have been made, as my colleague the Hon. Tammy Franks has stated, HIV continues to be a global health issue—36.3 million lives have been lost over the last four decades.

The World Health Organization estimates that 37.7 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2020, over two-thirds of whom (25.4 million) are in the World Health Organization’s African region. In 2020, 680,000 people died from HIV-related causes and 1.5 million people acquired HIV. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an insight into the fear and anxiety that must have been experienced 40 years ago.

The US government website provides a time line of these events, and I think it is appropriate to revisit these today. On 5 June 1981, the US Center for Disease Control published an article in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in Los Angeles. The article documented a rare lung infection that had affected five gay men and reported that these men had other health conditions as well. These seemed to indicate that their immune systems were not working. All of these men subsequently died of what we now to be the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

In the months that followed, there were more reports of rare health conditions, cancers among gay men in New York and California. By 2 July, the gay press in San Francisco was reporting the emergence of what they referred to as ‘gay men’s pneumonia’. The following day, the New York Times published a story under the headline ‘Rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals’, and so it was that this concept of gay cancer found its way into mainstream reporting.

In August of that year, the writer and activist Larry Kramer held a meeting of gay men in New York to discuss the response to the crisis. There was no access to rapid funding for research and so the group raised money, a little over $6,000. That was the only money that was raised in that year to fight the epidemic. In December, a paediatric immunologist, Dr Arye Rubinstein, reported the birth of five infants who were born with severe immune deficiencies. They showed very similar symptoms to the conditions that had been reported months earlier among gay men, but the diagnosis was dismissed by his colleagues.

On 10 December 40 years ago, Bobbi Campbell, a nurse from San Francisco, became the first person to reveal their diagnosis of what was then referred to as Kaposi’s sarcoma. Campbell died at age 32 in 1984 of what we now know to have been AIDS. By the end of 1981, there were 337 reports of people with the new disease, 321 adults and 16 children under the age of 13—this was just in the United States—and 130 of those people had died by the end of that year. Yet the US Congress would not pass a bill for funding targeted at HIV or AIDS research until May 1983. US President Ronald Reagan did not even mention the virus in any public speeches until September 1985. By December of that year, the United Nations was reporting that HIV was prevalent in every region of the world. By 1992, AIDS was the number one cause of death for men in the United States aged between 25 and 45.

As a gay man, I am in awe of the strength and resilience of people in my community who saw the deaths of friends and loved ones at that time and who fought so hard for HIV and AIDS to get the focus that we know that it needs. I also want to reflect on the lives that were lost, in particular the many young gay men. Many were separated from family and friends and forced to die alone facing terrible stigma. It must have been a very frightening time. The amazing strides that have been made in research and treatment would not have happened if not for the work and the leadership of gay activists and their allies. These were brave, courageous people and they deserve to be honoured today.

There have been some remarkable innovations in the treatment and the diagnosis of HIV in recent years: rapid testing, the availability of prep, improved antiviral treatments. These are all great things, and I know that they are really improving people’s lives. As a result of these innovations, people living with HIV can now live long and healthy lives but only if they get access to treatment. Despite these innovations, we have lots of work still to do to end this virus. Targets for combating HIV last year were sadly not met.

The theme for this year’s World AIDS Day is ‘End inequalities. End AIDS’. This is very timely because there is a terrible inequality in terms of access to HIV treatment. COVID-19 is only making access to health services more challenging. There are more than 25 million people in Africa living with HIV, and the World Health Organization fears that we could see a worst-case scenario of 7.7 million deaths from HIV over the next 10 years if we do not move to meet our targets. That is because of the impact of access to HIV services and treatment of COVID-19.

We have a moral responsibility in Australia to do what we can to support the global efforts to combat HIV, and to ensure that more people get access to these life-changing and life-saving treatments. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that governments around the world can work together to take action. We need this same vision and unity of purpose when it comes to dealing with HIV. I commend the motion.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. T.J. Stephens.