Category Archives: Life

A nation up to speed on HIV/AIDS

WORLD STAGE The International AIDS Conference came to Melbourne this week.
WORLD STAGE The International AIDS Conference came to Melbourne this week.

By Michael Burge 

THE world has been watching Melbourne this week as the city hosts the 20th International AIDS Conference. Despite initial reports from the event focusing understandably on the delegates killed by the missile attack on their flight over eastern Ukraine, the conference agenda hit the airwaves visibly on this week’s episode of QandA.

As a result a range of new and unfamiliar language has been presented to mainstream and social media audiences. From ‘Sero-Discordant Relationship’, ‘PEP’, ‘PrEP’, ‘TasP’, ‘ART’ and ‘PMTCT’ to phrases like ‘heteronormative’ and ‘men who have sex with men’, Australians have been getting a higher-than-average dose of HIV/AIDS-related vocabulary.

There are many other new elements to HIV/AIDS.

Unfortunately the word use is not coming with enough interpretation. ‘Conference-style’ or ‘industry-speak’ acronyms and sound bites occur in every sector, but with its ‘Stepping Up The Pace’ mission statement, this particular conference and its media delegates could have done with more plain talking and less weasel words to get the important messages about HIV/AIDS through to the communities they are seeking to engage.

With new HIV infection levels in Australia at a 20-year high, one of those communities is surely ours.

The international conference has a focus on tackling new infections and raised questions about the direction new HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns should take, considering the scare-factor of the Grim Reaper ad campaign of the late 1980s, and new data which reveals the 96 per cent protection rate for sero-discordant sexual encounters if one of the partners is being treated with ARV.

If you’re confused it’s no wonder. I thought I knew plenty about HIV/AIDS, but, like writer and HIV activist Nic Holas who was on the QandA panel, I am torn about whether this should be an opinion piece or a community service announcement.

One of the terms the conference has chosen to focus on is ‘Men who have Sex with Men’ (MSM), although the focus is mainly on this HIV/AIDS risk group overseas.

“It is a key objective of the 20th International AIDS Conference to shine a light on those men who have sex with men, sex workers, transgender people and people who use drugs who do not have the same access to treatment, care and prevention as their western colleagues may do,” UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé said at the start of the conference.

Ever since the phrase was coined in the 1990s as a means of de-stigmatising HIV infections which were the result of heterosexual men who engaged in sex with other men, it has sat rather uninterpreted outside the HIV/AIDS community.

But is it effective when addressing Australians in the media?

To answer that it’s important to underline that MSM does not mean ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’, in fact the term was invented to shield MSMs from any hint of ‘gay’.

Many in the gay community have sexual encounters with MSMs in sex-on-premises businesses (read: ‘saunas’ and/or ‘bathhouses’) or at beats (read: ‘public toilets’, although beats are also located at road-stops, sports fields, and can often crop-up right in the high street at bookshops or other businesses).

It doesn’t take long at a gathering of gay men for the stories about baby seats in the backs of cars at beats, or wives dropping husbands at saunas, to enter the conversation with an awkward mixture of laughter and understanding. MSM do not identify as ‘gay’ and they (and therefore their heterosexual sexual partners) remain at very high risk of HIV infection, in part because they tend not to get tested regularly.

Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) is a mouthful, but it’s also something the Australian community could develop a greater understanding of. Available at most hospital emergency departments, and essential to start before 72 hours have passed since exposure to the HIV virus, PEP is a four-week course of anti-HIV medication with a decent success rate.

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) is similar, but it’s engaged as a means of preventing HIV infection. Sero-discordant couples (when one partner is HIV positive and the other is HIV negative) are in the demographic which can benefit from PrEP, including couples who are trying conceive a child while protecting the uninfected partner from contracting HIV.

Treatment as Prevention (TasP) is an approach to HIV prevention which acknowledges that a sexual partner taking antiretroviral (ARV) medication has a greatly-reduced viral load (the amount of HIV virus in body fluids). It’s important to acknowledge that ARV’s side-effects means this form of treatment program is not for everyone.

TasP has made a significant difference in Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) of HIV during breastfeeding.

Heteronormative’ is a term that has often cropped-up in HIV/AIDS debates, generally at the queer theory end of the spectrum, and it’s used to tackle the assumption that gender and sexual orientation fall into fixed categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ according to abstract ‘laws of nature’ that have led to the shaming of same-sex attracted people.

DIY TEST HIV self-testing kit.
DIY TEST HIV self-testing kit.

Such stigmatising only increases the conditions in which higher rates of HIV infection occur, no matter which country you live in.

There are many other new elements to HIV/AIDS, from home testing and rapid testing at clinics (which have the potential to ensure a higher rate of MSM testing), to new measures for assisting the ongoing health of long-infected PLWHA (‘People Living With HIV/AIDS’).

It’s a veritable alphabet of acronyms which many LGBTQI (there we go again) remain grateful for because this kind of language aims to avoid assumptions of ‘victims’ and blame.

While it’s tempting for Australians to believe that HIV/AIDS in a third-world issue, that we have tackled the problem, and there is plenty of good news to get our heads around, the issue of how to communicate that message without an increase in new HIV infections is now one of the main HIV/AIDS challenges facing Australia. I believe unlocking the acronyms will help.

Further information about HIV/AIDS and rural communities.

This article first appeared in No Fibs.

© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.

Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords


How to spot an islander

1238070_551172344949481_657413862_nHERE in the subtropical regions of Woop Woop you only have to check out someone’s ankles to know how close they live to the seaboard. The tell-tale signs of irritating little bites can label you a shore-dweller faster than any accent or choice of clothing.

It’s beaut living by the sea, but there’s always a drawback, right?

Well, for me it’s my daily routine of insect repellent to the lower legs. It’s either that, or the terrible bites I copped within weeks of moving to Queensland in 2012, right as sandfly season took off.

Since then, I’ve been on the search for the most effective mozzie, sandfly, and bug retardant I can find, one which won’t kill me through daily use for half the year.

There’s plenty of home-made remedies out there, and many commercial products include the essential oil of a great Aussie native – Corymbia citriodora – the ‘lemon eucalyptus’.

I want to know if anyone’s got any old-fashioned home remedies to share?

© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.

Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords

Daylight cannot be saved

SUN CATCHER Don't try it at home (Photo:
SUN CATCHER Don’t try it at home (Photo:

FADING our curtains and keeping the cows awake, who does the sun think it is? Naughty sun, back in your box.

Yes, it’s Daylight Saving Time (DST) again, when even well-educated people are prone to believe the sun allows a whole hour of its light to be shifted to the other end of the day in some states, and not others.

Here in Queensland, I can see why many don’t want DST. In this climate, it’s cooler to fit a whole day’s gardening in before heading off to work, if that’s your thing.

Living north of the border, I am reminded of growing up in rural northern NSW, where there has always been a competitive spirit around rising early.

“Good afternoon!” was the pleasantly delivered breakfast barb to anyone who stumbled out of bed at the incredibly late hour of 6.30am, instead of being up before the first rays.

Incurable early riser and builder, Britain’s William Willett, gave DST legs in around 1907, and it had everything to do with window coverings.

As the story goes, whilst on his early morning horse rides, Willett noticed many of his neighbours still had their blinds drawn, a situation he took it on himself to change by writing his self-published book, The Waste of Daylight.

The impending First World War saw Willett’s vision embraced by the government as a means of saving coal.

Others will tell you the Romans invented DST, and here is the key to its purpose: DST suits organised economies, it has nothing to do with the time your body clock tells you to rise from your bed.

I suspect there’s more than a little state of origin competition behind the Queensland/NSW divide on the issue. NSW likes the feeling of being ‘ahead’ for six months. Queenslanders consequently dig our heels in, and will not be told what to do about our very own daylight.

Which is forgetting the facts: if you want to rise with the sun, you can do it all year, you’ll just have to keep your early morning activities short in the summer, before the clock tells you to scoot off to work.

And if you like to sleep in, you’re going to have to get some very heavy curtains.

Just don’t blame the sun.

Blame Willett and his builder’s view of the working day, and remember, builders down tools at 3pm, it’s a conspiracy …

© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.

Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords