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Wednesday 08 April 2009

Editorial: The reality of our HIV epidemic

Posted in: Community, HIV
By Jay Bennie - 21st March 2009

This is a challenging exercise aimed primarily at our male readers, but with a few modifications in obvious places our other readers can follow along too. Warning: This is not a game.

Take a pen and paper and list the names of all your closest male friends. Then add your closest male family members, now a few workmates, and some not so close friends, and the male rellies you don't see too often. Then add a few guys you went to school with, and a generous handful of male kiwi celebrities such as your favourite sportsmen, TV presenters, actors, and maybe even a politician or two.

Add them up. Reached 94 yet? Probably not, so try adding the first guys you had crushes on, the first one you kissed and the best lovers you ever had, regardless of how fleeting the liaison may have been. Then a few cuties you remember from your most recent bar or sex on site visits and the hottest Kiwi guys you have seen on dating sites, by nickname if necessary. Try adding a few neighbours, the guy who services your car and the chaps at the Post Office or favourite shop.

How's your total going? Need to cast your net wider? Do it, adding the names of any and all real guys who have had some impact on your life. Keep going until you reach 94 names.

When you reach 94 stop and look down your list, name by name, real man by real man, and imagine if every one of them last year learned that the rest of their lives will be complicated by a life and death struggle against the onset of AIDS. Imagine the secret they will be keeping from most of the people they know, probably including you. Imagine it slowly screwing up their lives. Imagine the torment of those who love, respect of rely on those men.

Now add your own name. And think deeply about what that would mean too.

Because 95 is's 'informed best estimate' of the actual number of men who have sex with men who were diagnosed with HIV last year. It's based on hard data provided yesterday by Otago University's AIDS Epidemiology Group, with our own slight upward adjustment to include some of those whose sexuality or mode of HIV transmission is unknown.

Somehow, despite the best efforts of those who are committed to keeping more men who have sex with men from contracting HIV, and with the active connivance of those who don't just give a damn, 95 more men got the shock of their lives last year and are in the process of reshaping their future around the realities of HIV infection.

The best strategies we, and I use "we" in the broadest possible sense to include anyone in a position to do something, anything, on a large or small scale, have come up with to keep HIV gated have failed these men. Some, perhaps many, of them have failed themselves. Because there are just three things needed to protect any men who have sex with men from contracting HIV: the knowledge they are at risk, the willingness and ability to commit to avoiding it, and a condom.

Sure, there might have been untold more infections without the programmes and interventions "we" have created. Sure, there are all kinds of reasons why this is happening, from the increasing pool of healthy but infected men, to the near public invisibility of the virus, to burn out, fatigue, the internet and ignorance. Sure, other comparable countries are reporting the same trend. But the sickening reality is that last year 95 more New Zealand men sat stunned and shaking as a health professional told them they now have an incurable disease which they will have to fight day in and day out for the rest of their lives.

And based on the above figures 20 more real men have already joined them so far this year.

HIV is real, it is surging back through our communities and we, that broadest possible "we," are going to have to improve our game a hell of a lot to overcome it. If you think "we" is other people, other organisations, please think again.

Now, add those 20 more real names to your list.

Jay Bennie - 21st March 2009