HIV/AIDS advocate dismayed by ruling against Taranaki man

Taranaki born Marama Pala is determined to give a voice to indigenous people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

Taranaki born Marama Pala is determined to give a voice to indigenous people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

A HIV/AIDS advocate says a ruling against a Taranaki man may stop more people with the virus from being upfront about their diagnosis.

New Plymouth's Aarron Jacobsen, who is HIV positive, complained to the Human Rights Commission after a dental refused to treat him. However the practitioner was cleared of any wrong-doing in a decision released this week and Jacobsen's claim was dismissed.

Te Atiawa's Marama Pala, executive director of INA (Māori, Indigenous and South Pacific) HIV/AIDS Foundation, said fear and discrimination were already strongly felt by people who lived with the illness.

"I really hope this doesn't turn people off from getting any type of health care," she said

She was also fearful the ruling would reinforce the view that people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS posed a risk to the community, something which she disputed.

Pala said modern medication kept the virus to almost undetectable levels in the blood and universal safety standards, like wearing gloves and a mask during treatment, were sufficient to prevent transmission. 

Such fear is what has driven some people living with the virus underground according to Pala.

This week, she presented the findings of a two year study into the experiences of Maori and Pasifika to a public health conference in Dunedin.

"What we found is a lot of our whanau are living in isolation and struggling with normal, daily life."

Based on the experiences of 104 people, which included Taranaki residents, she said many had kept their diagnosis to themselves.

"The stigma and discrimination and fear of being found out is so strong, so they don't tell anyone," Pala said.

Pala, who was born in Opunake, said close to 100 per cent of people involved in the study also admitted to having issues with alcohol and drugs, which she described as a "coping mechanism" to deal with depression and loneliness.

She said in her experience people also jumped to conclusions about how someone may have contracted the virus.

"Instantly the judgement is you're either gay or bisexual or you're a prostitute and a drug addict."

 Pala, who contracted HIV/AIDS at the age of 23, was on a mission to be a voice for the sufferers she had met through the research and in her role with the foundation.

This goal was particularly focussed on indigenous people around the world, including tangata whenua, and she hoped to include the specific needs of each group into strategies which are developed to address HIV/AIDS around the world.

"As Maori we have access to medication and access to care and access to really good services however our voice is so tiny that it is not registering," she said.

 - Stuff

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