National Gay Men’s HIV Health Promotion Conference
For small organisations such as our own, conference attendance plays an important part in moving the work of the organisation forward. It is a chance to connect with peers from across the country and across the range of work in our sector. Thirty years on from the beginning of the HIV epidemic , changes in treatments, prevention tools and the complex responses required for reducing HIV transmissions means that maintaining the partnership of community, researchers, clinicians and government is as important as ever.
In recent weeks I have attended the Social Research Conference on HIV, Viral Hepatitis & Related Diseases, and the National Gay Men’s HIV Health Promotion Conference. Each of these conferences provided a range of research, data, and reflection as well as the opportunity to share experiences that impact the communities that we work across.
The Social Research Conference is hosted every two years at the UNSW Centre for Social Research in Health, with this year marking the 25th anniversary of the Centre. The conference theme was ‘Margins & Belonging: Marginalised People Building Community’. Focussing on people who use injectable drugs, gay men, sex workers, and people from culturally & linguistically diverse backgrounds, the conference provides information, advocacy, and a voice for people living with HIV and viral hepatitis. This is a research-heavy conference, with much of the data presented being used to influence the work of councils and similar organisations.
I was particularly intrigued by a presentation by Adjunct Professor Victor Minichiello, responded to by SWOP NSW Executive Director Cam Cox, that explored how to normalise the perceptions of sex work, particularly male sex work. We were also fortunate enough to have Dr Gracelyn Smallwood from James Cook University on a panel discussion. Dr Smallwood shared her experiences of the events in QLD that lead to the development of Condoman, a popular and successful condom and STI awareness campaign targeting Aboriginal & Torres Strait Island communities.
The National Gay Men’s HIV Health Promotion Conference is also held every two years in Sydney. The conference is run by AFAO (Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations) and brings together people from a range of disciplines surrounding gay men’s HIV health promotion in Australia and New Zealand. This conference’s key focus is on the delivery of campaigns, education, workshops, and other health promotion interventions targeting gay men.
This year there was a strong focus on Social Media: both the uses and the inherent challenges and limitations of social media for health promotion. While an incredibly useful tool, the benefits of social media should not be overstated. The use of smartphones and apps for meeting sexual partners is also increasing disconnection from communities, but creative ways of working around these challenges are being developed. Community forums and old-fashioned outreach to saunas and beats still play an important role in reaching out to our communities. Workshops also continue to be an important tool for empowering gay men, young and old, and the use of storytelling and new technologies to convey HIV messages is another powerful medium of communication.
PrEP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis) featured heavily in both conferences, with special focus on the increasing data on its efficacy and the risk profiles of people using PrEP. Treatment as Prevention for people living with HIV is a complimentary means of reducing HIV transmission, and the success of the two interventions is playing an important role in reducing HIV stigma and improving the lives, and sex lives, of people living with HIV.
In addition to being an opportunity to engage with the latest research, conferences provide a boost to enthusiasm and energy. Sharing ideas, developing partnerships and remembering why we do this work and how exciting it can be is important for maintaining the quality of the work that we do, and ensuring that we are as innovative and relevant as possible for the communities we work with. Returning from the conferences is always a time of renewed passion and excitement, as we see where the new ideas, relationships and information take us next.