ABOUT two years ago while they were working together at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence, activist and advocate Todd Fernando and marketing guru James Saunders — both young, queer Aboriginal men — were talking about HIV.

Discussing the rates of HIV among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, they realised there was a gap: those young people were being left out of the conversation.

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“There needed to be a more national voice and more national representation in terms of young people saying, look, this is what we need, this is what has been happening and this is what you’ve been giving us, and quite frankly it’s not enough,” Fernando said.

“We want to really dramatically change the stats and change the rates of transmission in Aboriginal youth and something needs to happen.”

From that conversation, Fernando and Saunders decided to do something. They created ANTHYM: the Aboriginal Nations Torres Strait Islander HIV Youth Mob. Though still a fledgling organisation, ANTHYM is looking to engage young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to lead honest conversations in their communities about HIV, and about sexual health more generally.

While community-based approaches to HIV are certainly nothing new in Australia, stats on HIV look quite different in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population when compared to the rest of Australia.

The most recent figures show HIV prevalence is 1.3 times higher than for the non-Indigenous Australian-born population, and a higher proportion of infections were attributed to injecting drug use (12 per cent compared to three per cent) and heterosexual contact (21 per cent compared to 13 per cent). A higher proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living with HIV are also women, 20 per cent compared to five per cent.

There has been success through Indigenous-led responses to HIV in Australia, with the Anwernekenhe National HIV Alliance now in its 20th year and making strides for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people affected by and living with HIV.

James Saunders

However, Associate Professor James Ward, Deputy Head of Aboriginal Health at the Baker Institute in Alice Springs, argued that the need for specific youth representation was vital. He helped secure the initial funding for ANTHYM, and has some ongoing involvement providing input as an expert in the field.

Ward, an Aboriginal man of Pitjantjatjara and Nurrunga descent, addressed the international AIDS community at the AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne in July with a plenary presentation arguing for greater recognition of Indigenous populations in the global response to HIV.

“Fifty per cent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population in Australia are under the age of 25, compared to 32 per cent of the non-Indigenous population,” Ward said.

“It’s really important that Indigenous Australian young people have a voice and have a right to speak up and to design and develop prevention and treatment and care messages for young people — it’s been missing in Australia for a long time.”

The average age of HIV diagnosis is also younger for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, by about five years. While that may not seem like a huge difference, Ward argued it should give us reason to worry: all the elements are in place for an explosion of HIV among younger Indigenous people.

There is precedent for Ward’s concerns, with HIV becoming a huge problem among young First Nations people in Canada.

“Injecting drug use has largely driven the epidemic, unprotected sex and sex work has really driven the epidemic among young First Nations people, particularly women, in Canada,” he said.

“The potential for that to happen in Australia is there if we don’t strengthen our communities around our resilience to HIV.”

While the situation in Canada can be seen as a worrying vision of the future, local activists have also looked to that country in search of models for youth involvement in the response to HIV. ANTHYM was originally based on a similar Canadian organisation, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN).

Todd Fernando and his colleague James Saunders looked at NYSHN’s work in setting up online social media networks to connect young people who might otherwise be isolated.

“Australia’s a large country — a lot of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community is very spread out,” Saunders said.

Todd Fernando

Todd Fernando

“With certain communities getting access to the internet it’s really changing the way we interact with each other.”

The stigma associated with HIV and faced by people living with the virus is often seen as a barrier to effective responses, but Saunders said the huge diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities made it difficult to generalise about stigma specific to Indigenous Australia.

“In communities where the traditional values are quite strong, I think it’d be hard to have that discussion, [compared to] people who are living in the cities and have access to healthcare and awareness campaigns,” he argued.

“A lot of [campaigns] are predominantly very much promoted in the cities where a large number of people who identify as LGBTIQ live, so we’re aware of it and our families are aware of it, so it really depends.”

In many communities, a lot of work will need to be done shift thinking away from the idea that HIV is only a gay issue, or even to break down the stigma associated with talking about sexual health.

“Even talking about sexual health in Aboriginal communities is quite a taboo topic, and so initially we need to start making sure that the conversation can happen without the awkwardness,” Fernando said.

The cultural diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities has also driven ANTHYM’s approach, recruiting eight young people for the organisation’s committee from across Australia.

As the organisation’s current co-chair, Fernando said the goal was to have the committee represent geographically as much of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia as possible. The eight current committee members will serve as “ambassadors” of sorts, helping young people to talk about HIV within their communities.

ANTHYM is looking next to HIV week in December, and is currently in the process of creating resources to get communities discussing these issues. Change will be incremental.

“We’ve got some pretty deadly people on board and some amazing young talent that are willing to step up and talk to their elders and talk to their communities about this,” Fernando said.

“[We’re] going to organisations and saying, look, this is what’s happening, this is what we need to do — that’s slowly going to impact on the conversation.”

**This article was first published in the November edition of the Star ObserverClick here to find out where you can grab your free copy in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional areas. 

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