Candlelight vigil highlights education as the key to fighting HIV stigma

HIV AIDS Candlelight Vigil

Liberal Senator Dean Smith spoke at Perth’s annual candlelight vigil to remember those people who lost their lives due to HIV/AIDS.

Senator Smith said the event was a time to remember and celebrate those we had loved and lost, and those who live with the virus.

“For all the progress that has been made in Australia and abroad, the medical treatment and combating stigma and discrimination, protecting future generations, there is always much more to be done.” Senator Smith said.

The federal MP said more work needed to be done to continue to remove stigma for those living with HIV and increase visibility of efforts to combat the spread of the virus.

Senator Smith said that while there had been great advancements in the area of prevention, the community could not afford to become complacent.

“In Melbourne two years ago Michael Kirby reminded us of some of the essential principles that should guide us in our advocacy today and into the future.” Senator Smith said, noting that the key points made by the respected jurist at the World AIDS Conference were worth revisiting.

“First he talked about science, secondly he reminded us we must always listen to the voices of people living with HIV AIDS, there care should be at the forefront of all of our efforts… he reminded us that we must educate the politicians about the AIDS paradox, that to get people to test and to reduce the human toll we must not punish and isolate people but instead protect them.” Senator Smith recalled.

“Finally he said we must resist the traditional approaches to epidemics, we musty continue to embrace therapy as prevention.

Senator Smith said this years theme for the international event ‘Engage, Educate and Empower’ was a reminder of the constant work that is required to tackle the pandemic.

Calls for more education about HIV for all parts of the community

Ryan Oliver, one of Western Australia’s representatives to the National Association of People with HIV Australia, said the theme created three important steps towards a better health response.

“An engaged community with greater awareness towards HIV, with results on discrimination of people living with HIV, better treatment options for them and also assist in the prevention of HIV – education and knowledge is a tool which helps people to protect themselves, understand what pertains to risk and take informed decisions.”

The HIV rights advocate said greater education would lead to a reduction in stigma and would help people living with HIV to look forward to living full and healthy lives.

Paul Baines, WA’s second NAPWHA representative, said for too long government and health agencies had looked at people living with HIV who were disengaged from society and approached the challenge as a ‘return to work’ problem. Baines said he hoped a wider approach could be developed to help people find their passions.

Liz Walker, a peer educator from the WA AIDS Council, said education about HIV was an ongoing process.

“Each generation of young adult need to know the facts about HIV, and even the older generations require an update from time to time about the successes of the last 35 years such as ‘treatment as prevention’, new innovations like PrEP and progress to a cure.” Liz Walker said.

Walker said increased education made a serious impact on reducing stigma related to HIV.

The HIV educator said it was alarming that a recent survey in the USA had found that 25% of respondents still believed HIV could be transmitted by sharing cups and plates with a person living with HIV, while another survey conducted in New Zealand found 23% of participants said they would feel uncomfortable being friends with a person who was HIV positive.

Walker said it was important that people were able to put a human face to HIV and recognise that it could be somebody they know, like their brother, their sister or even themselves.

“HIV education is not just used by HIV negative people to protect them,” Walker said, “Its also a tool often used by HIV positive people to empower and improve their quality of life.”

Graham Taylor remembered at candlelight vigil 

Jack Bridges delivered a speech remembering Graham Taylor who was HIV positive and passed away.

“Twenty years later I find that my memories of Graham’s biographical details are weak, I think he had children, I think he had a sibling, I think he moved to Perth. But what I do remember with great clarity is Graham’s vitality and enthusiasm for life.” Bridges recalled.

“He had a great passion for the community, he was vibrantly, exuberantly gay, he was very loud and he believed that there were no occasion for which animal print lycra was not suitable wear.” Bridges said, “I really miss that the most, the enormous passion he had for living, he embraced life thoroughly.”

Taylor is just one of the local people who have been memorialised with a plaque at the state’s AIDS Memorial.

The crows observed a moment of silence to remember those lost to HIV/AIDS, and Singer Ali Bodycoat performed the Cyndi Lauper song ‘True Colours’.

The WA AIDS Memorial is located in Robertson Park in North Perth.

Graeme Watson

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