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AIDS Foundation Has Challenges Ahead

The New Zealand AIDS Foundation is an organisation charged with a particular role and duty in the community, and the environment in which we operate has become more challenging over the last year. Internally, it has been a time of transition for us, marked by the departure of Kevin Hague, who had been Executive Director for nearly six years, and externally we face a more complex and fluid world, where the threat posed by HIV/AIDS has continued to increase, while maintaining its visibility in the public eye and the communities in which we work has become harder and harder.

Kevin’s departure presented the Board with the challenge of finding a replacement who could continue his excellent standard of ably leading the organisation and also placing the Foundation as a leader in the national arena of Public Health. The Board is confident that in our new Executive Director, Rachael Le Mesurier, we have such a person and looks forward to working with her and watching her lead the Foundation as it continues its work in the prevention of HIV/AIDS and support of those living with it in Aotearoa/New Zealand. I would also like to acknowledge at this time the excellent work done by Anne Carson who, in her role as Acting Executive Director, ensured through her able management that our work could continue during this time of change.

This is the first time in its 18 year history that the Foundation has had a woman at its head. While the Board was aware that appointing a woman to this role might surprise some people the Foundation has always held strongly to the principle that the best person available should be the person who gets the job. This appointment does not signal some major shift in our emphasis or work. The group most at risk of HIV infection in Aotearoa/New Zealand continues to be Men-Who-Have-Sex-Men, (MSM) and this is the area we are funded to work with and where the epidemic must be stopped. We are, in an odd way, fortunate in this country, in that HIV/AIDS has not spread out into the wider community in the way it has in so many other countries. While this places a special burden on the gay community and MSM, and us, it does allow us as an organisation to focus our expertise in that area.. The Foundation arose as the response of the gay community, male and female, to this virus and it is in this community that the main risk of HIV infection still lies in this country.

We will continue of course to offer our support services to anyone, of any sexuality, age or gender who has been infected or affected by the virus. We are committed to that. The lives of anyone touched by this virus are of concern to us and we stand alongside them.

The virus has not slept over the last year. There has been an increase in the number of homosexual and bisexual men diagnosed with Western Blot test as being HIV positive. While every new diagnosis is a tragedy both personally and in a wider sense, we are somewhat fortunate that in this country we start with a lower base infection rate. We fear we may be seeing a substantial increase in new diagnoses in the current year but will not know this for sure for some time yet. In addition we are seeing increased numbers of men in the medical system who have been diagnosed overseas and are appearing in our statistics by having a Viral Load test done here. thus it needs to be borne in mind that while we se an increase in numbers, not all of those will have been infected in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Gratifyingly, the number of people dying from AIDS continues to decrease. This can be attributed to the effectiveness of current medical treatments in coping with the diseases occasioned by the virus. However, this situation should not afford us any complacency; the number of HIV positive people who are now resistant to many if not all the medications available here continues to grow, and unless PHARMAC takes this problem seriously and addresses it we will see an increase in HIV positive men and women getting sick and dying of AIDS. This also means that the chances of a newly infected person being resistant to the existing medical regimens is getting higher and higher, with the consequence that they will get sick and die sooner. Once again, HIV positive people are finding themselves in the invidious position of having to consider leaving their families, their friends and communities and their employment in this country to seek out more effective treatments overseas that should be available here. We will continue to work to try and change this situation, but it is of deep concern to us and if PHARMAC continues in this manner the outlook can only be described as bleak.

Internally, the Foundation is in good financial shape. We have received a much-needed increase in baseline funding this year. This is in large part due to the hard work done by Kevin Hague and the Management Team in thoroughly preparing a convincing briefing for the Prime Minister and minister of Health earlier this year. The work produced Vivienne and her Administration staff in overseeing the smooth running of the accounts, the financial situation of the Foundation and the day-to-day office operations continues to be of the highest quality. Such work is essential to the well-being of the organisation, but often passes unacknowledged.

The Gay Men’s Health Team continues to come up with original and internationally admired resources and campaign materials. Their work is world class, and often world first as well. These are not just pretty give-aways, but an essential tool in our campaign to prevent further infection. Kerry Price and his team deserve to be acknowledged for the constant high standard of their work and their responsiveness to the continually changing challenges that arise in Health Promotion in an increasingly complex environment. The Gay Men’s Health team continues to actively engage the community within which it works – this is essential, if challenging, in dealing with such a fluid environment and such an important issue.

Hau Ora Takaatapui, led by Te Herekiekie Herewini has expanded its range of services this year, with the much-needed appointment of a new National Kaimahi in Wellington, Eriata Peri. This position gives added depth of coverage for takataapui throughout the country and allows us to expand our services in an important area. We have also for the first time been able to appoint a Kaimahi Whakawahine, Shannon White. This is an important move for us, and will enable us to reach out more effectively to a community often marginalised, and one at risk.

The Positive Health Programme continues to provide that front-line support to those living with the virus that is so essential. There have been some changes, with a new Centre Manager in Hamilton following Robyn Furley’s move to take over running Te Toka in Christchurch. The team in Hamilton are looking at innovative ways to provide their services to the wider geographic area they live in and this is a welcome move.

The campaigns that are so often the public face of our work along with the policy advice given to the Management and Board and external agencies could not happen without the excellent work provided by our research team. Our work and policy is based on the best possible evidence. The work that is involved in gathering this data is laborious and often unsung, but it utterly essential for us as an organisation to be able to plan what we do; it forms the basis of our prevention work, and is of an internationally recognised standard. The GAPSS study (2002) has already provided valuable information, and it will be repeated in February adding to that essential base of information on which we base our work.

I would also like to acknowledge the collective wisdom and guidance of the Board. Their contribution is usually unseen, but it is essential, and I am pleased to say the new Board structure is working excellently. As their Chair, I am indebted to them and to the hard work they do for the New Zealand AIDS Foundation.

In short, I am glad to be able to say that the Foundation is in a very solid position. Without being unduly pessimistic, we need to be, because the epidemic itself is gaining globally and it may well be doing so here as well. There is a new generation for whom AIDS has none of the terror or fear that it holds for those of us who watched our friends die around us. Complacency among the youth and also now amongst the community in general is growing. It is good we are prepared, for I fear our work will get harder and harder.

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