HIV rate dropping

POSITIVE MIND: Jane Bruning has lived with HIV for 25 years and says education is key to decreasing discrimination around the disease.
POSITIVE MIND: Jane Bruning has lived with HIV for 25 years and says education is key to decreasing discrimination around the disease.

Safe sex is keeping Kiwis free of HIV but discrimination is still a big problem for those already infected.

Figures from the New Zealand AIDS Foundation show the number of new HIV infections among gay and bisexual men has dropped by 39 per cent since the beginning of 2011 - the lowest it's been in a decade.

The number of cases among heterosexual people has also been falling consistently since 2006 when immigration laws tightened to incorporate HIV screening.

But Jane Bruning says those with the virus are still battling stigma and the shame that comes with it.

Ms Bruning contracted HIV from a sexual partner while working in Tanzania in 1988 and following her diagnosis was told she had just three years to live.

Fear meant she hid the disease from her son, friends and wider family.

"You feel like you have HIV stuck on your forehead and everyone can see it and they are going to treat you badly," she says.

However, improved medication extended her life expectancy and she slowly came out to her inner circle.

Ms Bruning finally came out publicly eight years ago when she started working at Positive Women, a Mt Eden-based organisation that helps women who are HIV positive come to terms with their diagnosis.

The organisation has a drop-in centre and offers women's retreats.

She says many women who come through its doors have tussled with employers, family, doctors, daycare and themselves in the effort to keep dignity intact.

"Shame is a big factor in living with HIV. We talk about community stigma, but there is also internal stigma, because often someone might have had those same perceptions before they contracted HIV, and when they contract it they carry on those perceptions about themselves."

Ms Bruning says the latest figures are encouraging but it is important not to become complacent.

"We shouldn't stop talking about HIV. We need to focus on education to cut down the stigmatisation and increase prevention. The more we can educate people, the more understanding people become."

New Zealand AIDS Foundation executive director Shaun Robinson says the drop in new infections is a byproduct of a refocused awareness campaign.

"The big change has been that we really had to rethink our prevention work, we shifted from a health education model to a social marketing model which just pushes the action, like the Get It On campaign."

Cartoon imagery portraying condoms as a natural part of sex is a key part of the project.

"It's actually worked much faster than we expected," he says. "I don't think there is any other country in the world that is experiencing this kind of success."

But Mr Robinson also says prejudice remains a problem.

"On a day-to-day basis probably the biggest issue for people living with HIV is discrimination.

"We get cases all the time of people being shunned or put-down because others are scared if they let people live in their flat they'll catch AIDS for example."

HIV is only contracted through blood-to-blood contact or sexual activity and cannot be passed on through kissing, holding hands or eating from the same cutlery.

Central Leader