Boldly Positive: World AIDS Day 2022

Image: Burnet Deputy Program Director, Disease Elimination, Dr Anna Hearps addresses the World AIDS Day Victorian Community Launch

A focus on issues facing women living with HIV and the community’s response to women’s needs was the theme of the World AIDS Day 2022 Official Victorian Community Launch hosted by Living Positive Victoria and Burnet Institute at the Alfred Innovation and Education Hub.

Women continue to bear a huge burden of HIV-related stigma and assumptions about HIV risk, which may affect access to testing, treatment and care, and psychosocial wellbeing.

Women also experience HIV differently from men, with unique problems such as gynaecological health issues, increased risk of cervical cancer, treatment side effects and drug interactions, and ageing related issues.

In Australia rates of new HIV diagnosis are not declining in women.

Image: Members of the Women in HIV Research Community Forum

A lived experience of HIV were themes of the welcoming address by Craig Brennan, President of Living Positive Victoria, and presentation from Bernadette Roberts from Positive Women Victoria.

“As a woman living with HIV for over 26 years, I feel I have lived a full and rewarding life,” Ms Roberts said.

“But as a peer support worker with Positive Women, what does concern me is that so many women living with HIV do not have adequate access to housing … and many of the women we support are struggling with mental health issues.

“On a positive note, living with HIV is not a death sentence – it’s a chronic illness that can be managed.

“Women are getting on with their lives, raising children, working, studying, and enjoying life, but we need to remember that HIV still carries with it stigma, and we need to challenge this at every opportunity.”

A highlight of the program was the Women in HIV Research Community Forum hosted by Burnet Institute.

Burnet Deputy Program Director, Disease Elimination, Dr Anna Hearps discussed the research landscape and the barriers she and her colleagues face in their studies into the impact of HIV on the immune system.

“With regard to how we’re going with meaningful participation (of women) I am going to answer very honestly and say, ‘terribly’,” Dr Hearps said.

“We know that there are big differences in how women’s immune systems respond to HIV, and with regards to chronic inflammation and immune disfunction that people with HIV experience there’s evidence that may have more of an effect in women.

“And some of the comorbidities that people with HIV experience an increased risk of may have more of an impact in women, particularly things like cardiovascular diseases which are often not on the radar as much for women, because they’re associated more with men.”

Image: Craig Brennan, President of Living Positive Victoria

Dr Hearps noted the majority of studies conducted in Australia looking at immune disfunction are exclusively in men because of the demographics of HIV in Australia, and because not enough women are being recruited to get meaningful data.

“What would meaningful participation look like? At the very least parity (with men) with what we see in the population here,” Dr Hearps said.

Other speakers at the launch included Dr Todd Fernando, The Victorian Commissioner for LGBTIQ+ Communities, who delivered the Opening Address, and Burnet’s Dr Lindi Masson who participated in the Women in HIV Research Community Forum.

Dr Masson was a convenor of the World AIDS Day mHIVE Symposium which followed the Community Launch.

In Canberra, Burnet Head of Public Health Professor Mark Stoové was a panellist at the World AIDS Day Parliamentary Breakfast where announcements from Federal Health Minister Mark Butler MP included the creation of a specialist task force to drive the end of HIV transmission in Australia, along with increased funding to UNAIDS.

World AIDS Day is celebrated on December 1 each year to raise awareness around the world and in the community about issues relating to HIV and AIDS.

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