Australia

Australia’s HIV elimination success overshadowed by Indigenous neglect

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Indigenous dancer Jacob Boehme is breaking down stigmas of being black, gay and HIV positive - at a time when infection rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to rise.

When Indigenous Australian artist Jacob Boehme was diagnosed with HIV in 1998 at the age of 24, he thought his life was over. 

"I wasn't too educated about HIV, I knew enough to be scared of it and that was about it," he said.

"I initially went off the rails a bit...it took me until I was about 30 to get my act together and realise that I was not going to die."

Choreographer and dancer Jacob Boehme from the Narangga and Kaurna nations of South Australia was diagnosed with HIV in 1998.
Choreographer and dancer Jacob Boehme from the Narangga and Kaurna nations of South Australia was diagnosed with HIV in 1998.
SBS

Now 45, the Melbourne-based performer has not only accepted his diagnosis but used it to empower him.

Three years ago, Boehme publicly shared his experiences of being a "gay Aboriginal man with HIV" in his first solo dance work, Blood On The Dance Floor, and he continues to tour the piece internationally and across Australia.

"This is the point of getting up on stage and speaking because we’re not talking about it and HIV is not going away," he said. "The Indigenous voice has been lost in the conversation and it is about time we had a seat at the table."

Lowest HIV rates in 18 years

New research released by the Kirby Institute at the University of NSW showed Australia has recorded the lowest number of HIV diagnoses since 2001, with only 835 cases reported last year.

But while the number of diagnoses has dropped among gay and bisexual men, there has not been a similar decrease among heterosexuals or the Indigenous population.

The number of new HIV cases in Australia has dropped to its lowest levels since 2001.
The number of new HIV cases in Australia has dropped to its lowest levels since 2001.
Getty

Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations CEO Darryl O'Donnell said more awareness of treatment and preventative measures is needed.

"This requires cultural sensitivity and significant investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforces," he said.

"The new prevention medicine, PrEP, coupled with easier testing and effective treatment are all helping to drive down HIV rates. The data show us what is possible, but we have a long way to go."

Associate Professor James Ward is the Aboriginal Health Head of Infectious Diseases Research at the South Australian Institute for Health and Medical Research has also backed calls for a culturally targeted approach.

Indigenous dancer Jacob Boehme shares his story of being HIV positive on stage.
Indigenous dancer Jacob Boehme shares his story of being HIV positive on stage.
Dorine Blaise/Bryony Jackson

He said the number of diagnoses is still double that of non-Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander groups.

"That's despite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people noted as a priority population in policy and clinical guidelines around Australia," he said.

"We think that the impact of PrEP is not having a great effect in our population and this requires targeted inventions to make sure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not left behind."

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