Break­ing down the STI stigma

South Waikato News - - Your Paper, Your Place - AARON LEAMAN

In­grained prejudice and mis­con­cep­tions about HIV are caus­ing Maori liv­ing with the virus to put off seek­ing treat­ment.

Ti­rau woman Marama Pala has been work­ing to ed­u­cate indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties about the dis­ease after she was in­fected with HIV more than two decades ago.

The 45-year-old’s mis­sion to bust myths and erase the stigma at­tached to the dis­ease has taken her across the coun­try and over­seas.

Some of the most deep-seated mis­be­liefs about HIV ex­ist in ru­ral Maori com­mu­ni­ties, Pala said.

‘‘I’ve vis­ited com­mu­ni­ties and marae in Taranaki and Gis­borne and spo­ken to kau­matua who have never heard of the Rain­bow Move­ment or the pros­ti­tu­tion law re­form,’’ Pala said.

‘‘They think pros­ti­tu­tion and be­ing gay is il­le­gal and be­lieve those that have HIV are ei­ther men that have sex with men, or are sex work­ers or drug users.’’

Dis­crim­i­na­tion and a lack of aware­ness about the virus within ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties con­trib­utes to late de­tec­tion of HIV in Maori, she said.

Pala said the new drug Tivicay was a ma­jor ad­vance in the treat­ment of those with HIV and pre­dicted it would ben­e­fit Maori liv­ing with the dis­ease.

‘‘When I started my treat­ment in 1999 I was tak­ing 20 pills a day. With Tivicay, you take one pill once a day. For the whanau that we sup­port, many are liv­ing in a com­mu­nal sit­u­a­tion. It’s very hard to keep your con­di­tion pri­vate if you have to take a hand­ful of pills as op­posed to just one. The new med­i­ca­tion regime is also eas­ier to keep on top of for peo­ple who are work­ing.’’

Franklin said Tivicay was nor­mally used in com­bi­na­tion with other an­tiretro­vi­ral medicines. It was re­garded as part of the ‘‘num­ber one treat­ment’’ for HIV.

Tivicay was eas­ily tol­er­ated and had few neg­a­tive in­ter­ac­tions with other medicines.

Pala con­tracted HIV from her for­mer lover, Kenyan mu­si­cian Peter Mwai.

Mwai was sen­tenced to seven years’ prison in 1994 for en­dan­ger­ing five women, in­fect­ing two with HIV. He was de­ported in June 1998 and died in Uganda three months later.

Pala, whose hus­band, Tony, is also Hiv-pos­i­tive, said she was func­tion­ally cured, with the virus un­de­tectable in her body.

Their two chil­dren are HIV neg­a­tive. Maori make up 40 per cent of late di­ag­noses of HIV.

Since 2011, the num­ber of new HIV in­fec­tions has in­creased each year.

Last year, 224 new cases of HIV were de­tected in New Zealand.

Doc­tor Rick Franklin, a sex­ual health physi­cian, said the in­creas­ing rates of HIV in­fec­tion was dis­cour­ag­ing but could be com­bated in a num­ber of ways.

‘‘Where we need to up our game is our ser­vices that al­low test­ing. If we get test­ing to ev­ery­body who might be at risk, that would give us great op­por­tu­ni­ties to in­flu­ence the in­creas­ing rate of in­fec­tion.’’

From Novem­ber, Phar­mac be­gan fund­ing Tivicay, an an­tivi­ral med­i­ca­tion that blocks HIV from spread­ing through the im­mune sys­tem.

Pala said the new drug was a ma­jor ad­vance in the treat­ment of those with HIV and it would ben­e­fit Maori.

Franklin said Tivicay was nor­mally used in com­bi­na­tion with other an­tiretro­vi­ral medicines. It was re­garded as part of the ‘‘num­ber one treat­ment’’ for HIV.

Tivicay was eas­ily tol­er­ated and had few neg­a­tive in­ter­ac­tions with other medicines.

TOM LEE/FAIRFAX NZ

Marama Pala said Maori are of­ten di­ag­nosed with HIV in the later stages of in­fec­tion.

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