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Byron Shire
October 20, 2021

HIV pop-up testing a first

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Jenny Heslop (HARP) and Marie Reilly (ACON) outside the pop-up testing van. Photo Melissa Hargraves
Jenny Heslop (HARP) and Marie Reilly (ACON) outside the pop-up testing van. Photo supplied

Melissa Hargraves

Tropical Fruits is hosting Australia’s first regional pop-up rapid HIV-testing site this week after the concept’s huge success in Sydney’s Taylor Square on World AIDS Day.

Jenny Heslop, manager of HIV & related programs (HARP), told Echonetdaily the whole idea of the pop-up free testing site was to make ‘testing more accessible, less threatening, and immediate. Especially in regional areas, people may wait some time to receive results so we turn results around in half an hour.’

According to Ms Heslop, about 21 per cent of HIV infections in NSW are undiagnosed.

‘I am hoping we will be able to pick up some of those undiagnosed cases,’ she said.

One factor preventing people from testing is fear about possible disclosure of their status.

‘Some people in small towns may not want their results exposed. If they are at a festival, for instance, they can do the test without being around the corner from home.’

Pop-up testing also helps to reduce stigma around sexually transmitted diseases.

‘[HIV] is no longer a death sentence like in the Grim Reaper days,’ said Ms Heslop.

‘We have come a long way; treatments are amazing. There is no cure, though, so we can’t get complacent.

‘But at the same time, if you know what your status is, it is very manageable these days.’

Ms Heslop suggested people test six-monthly or, if they are highly sexually active, three-monthly.

Staffing the pop-up testing site are doctors and nurses as well as ACON staff and peer educators, who have all undergone training in the TGA-approved testing procedure.

Dr David Smith, medical director of Lismore Sexual Health Service, said knowing your HIV status is important.

He told Echonetdaily that it is ‘better to know you have the infection than live in a fool’s paradise and run the possibility of getting sick. It also prevents further transmission of the virus if you know you are carrying it.’

Dr Smith said there is no evidence locally of any substantial transmissions of HIV despite the large gay population here.

Ms Heslop added that NSW Health statistics show a 17 per cent increase in heterosexual transmission of HIV.

Marie Reilly, regional manager of ACON Northern Rivers, told Echonetdaily that prevention of HIV remains the group’s first priority.

‘We will be distributing 6,000 condoms across the festival, which is more than one per party-goer,’ she said.

‘Our big campaign at the moment is “I’m On”, which is reinforcing the message that the best HIV prevention is the correct and consistent use of condoms and making sure that condoms, lubricants and other safe-sex equipment are readily available.

‘Testing more is another preventive measure against HIV. Treating early is also very important.’

The culture of safe sex among campers at the festival is healthy, according to Ms Heslop.

‘Free condoms are provided for campers at the festival and large supplies have been emptying very quickly already,’ said Ms Heslop.

‘We also know that a condom in a pocket does not equate to a safe-sex situation. We are concerned about people who are considerably intoxicated from drugs and/or alcohol being dis-inhibited and forgetting their responsibility.’

Ms Reilly said that from recent research that most gay men use condoms.

‘We need to keep this safe-sex culture fresh as new and younger men are coming onto the scene,’ she said.

The pop-up rapid-testing van is a partnership between NSW Ministry of Health, Northern NSW and Mid North Coast Local Health Districts (MNCLHD & NNSW LHD), ACON and SydPath (St Vincent’s Pathology).

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