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Aussie’s leading PrEP activists join Auckland's PrEP forum

Michael Whelan from PrEPaccessNOW (PAN) and PrEP’D For Change’s Chris Williams are hitting our shores for the upcoming Auckland PrEP Community Forum, hosted by Ending HIV. We got the chance to speak to Michael and Chris about their experiences doing PrEP advocacy work across the ditch and their hopes for their upcoming visit.

MICHAEL WHELAN

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How did you get involved in PrEP access and information community activism in Australia?

I initially became involved with PrEP advocacy because I needed to access PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis). This lead to me learning about PrEP - which wasn't available in Australia at the time. Through gay social networking apps, I could see a lot of friends abroad who were proudly displaying their PrEP status on their profiles and I wanted to find out more.

After I did some digging around I became aware of the VicPrEP study, but missed out on joining. Through my research I got in touch with the guys who formed PrEPaccessNOW and immediately wanted to be a part of their work.

I joined the committee at the end of 2015 and have been obsessed with the PrEP space since.

As you and Chris both work at the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC), can you explain the role of the HIV organisation in relation to local PrEP access and information pathways in Victoria?

In Victoria we’re fortunate to have formed the Victorian PrEP accord. This is a partnership on an agreed set of values and principles between the two largest sector stakeholders, VAC and Living Positive Victoria, along with grassroots community activists, like PrEP'D For Change and PAN, as well as representatives from the VicPrEP/PrEPX clinical studies. This has been crucially beneficial in ensuring our community is getting appropriate support, information, and access pathways across all areas of the PrEP landscape.

VAC has been instrumental in the ongoing success of the PrEPX study by injecting $600,000 into the study to expand to a further 600 places. VAC also has two of the clinical sites that are part of the studies, as well as doing lots of statewide inclusion of both treatment as prevention and PrEP in their wider campaign strategies.

This includes their support of the work that PAN and PrEP'D For Change do in the community engagement space.

What would be some key advice you would give to Kiwis wanting to get behind or start local initiatives to support PrEP access and information?

Just get started! It can be daunting at first to try and be across all of the international studies, statistics, and clinical data, but there are some wonderful resources that community and sector organisations have made to get the right info out there. From PAN's perspective we'd love to work with people on the ground in NZ in supporting anything that grows.

Jump on the web, do your homework and join some of the Facebook groups.

What will you be doing with your time in Auckland?

Well on top of a bit of mandatory sight seeing, we really want to talk with anyone interested in PrEP. Both Chris and I will be around until Sunday, so we'd love to arrange some catch ups with people who are keen!

Most importantly we'd like to grab a drink and chat at the pub following the forum to answer questions. Talking about PrEP at the pub makes the discussion really approachable and we’re excited to develop PrEP advocacy connections across the Tasman.


CHRIS WILLIAMS

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How did you get involved in PrEP access and information community activism in Australia?

After supporting my best mate during his early adoption of PrEP when nobody else we knew was doing it, I decided PrEP was right for me too. Within the first few months of using it, we both realised our thoughts, feelings and experiences were pretty similar and wondered if that might be the case for other people as well. So we decided to use our profiles on apps like Grindr and Scruff to raise awareness, invite discussion, answer questions about it and offer support to anyone who was curious. As it turned out, a lot of people were! So Daniel came up with the idea of sustaining a more widespread conversation about PrEP to help people figure it all out. We recognised that helping the community to form educated opinions of PrEP would be crucial in the implementation of such a ground-breaking HIV prevention strategy. As a result, we founded the PrEP'D For Change Facebook group in June 2015 as a national support and information platform for everyone in Australia.

From your position within the community, can you explain the role of HIV organisations in relation to PrEP access and information pathways in Victoria?

In Victoria we're fortunate to maintain close working relationships with HIV organisations and other community groups. Lead by VAC (Victorian AIDS Council) in December 2015, representatives from community organisations, grass-roots activist groups and medical researchers came together to form the Victorian PrEP Accord. While members of this working group may take different paths, the accord exists to support and complement each others' work by upholding a set of shared principles around the adoption of PrEP. Advice, support and inclusive communication have been paramount to achieving our common goals of equitable access to PrEP, challenging stigma and the elimination of new HIV transmissions. By working collaboratively, we're able to share different perspectives while also gaining insight into what's important for others. That's hugely important when organisations like VAC have a direct relationship with the government to help secure funding for PrEP access, and clinical researchers actively seek input from the people directly involved. The accord is invaluable for representing the voice of the people involved, as well as defining clear, consistent and informed communications back to the community.

If you were able to impart your learnings/wisdom from your work in PrEP access and information to New Zealanders wanting to get behind or start local initiatives what would be some key advice?

  • Engage with HIV organisations and know that different approaches are OK, as long as you communicate and support each other's objectives
  • Seek out and consider the experiences of people living with HIV to remain informed and respectful - they have a wealth of experience in managing their own use of biomedical HIV treatment/prevention tools and being resilient to stigma
  • Creating the opportunity for people to come to their own conclusions about how best to protect themselves is far more valuable and empowering than telling them what to think or do
  • Be respectful of people's opinions, even if different to yours; Some of the most supportive PrEP advocates are those who have had the experience of changing their own opinions of PrEP - they're far more equipped to empathise with people still forming theirs
  • It's important to support people's choices to protect themselves however they see fit and recognise the importance of having multiple options to do so - ultimately, using any of the options is significantly more valuable and effective than not using any at all
  • When you're clear about what you're aiming to achieve, never underestimate your ability to make a difference

What will you be doing with your time in Auckland?

After the forum, Michael and I are very much looking forward to discovering more about how people in Auckland feel about the start of the PrEP study, and what that means for the future. We'll also be delighted to answer questions - we welcome anyone to feel comfortable asking us anything, no matter how personal or controversial. Over the weekend I'm hugely looking forward to spending more time in and around Auckland and going back to some of my favourite bars and restaurants I've been to before. And if anyone in Auckland spots us online or out and about while we're there, we're always up for a chat.


The Auckland PrEP Community Forum is on at the Dog’s Bollix pub in Auckland from 5:30pm on June 8th. Click attending on our Facebook event page and come join the discussion!

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