Fear forcing HIV-positive locals to boycott local chemists

7th December 2015 6:40 AM

FEAR of stigma and discrimination is forcing Northern Rivers residents with a serious illness to boycott their local chemists.

Health experts told APN Newsdesk many HIV-positive locals refused to get their medications from the region's chemists because they were scared of being outed as having the disease.

They are also hiding their HIV status from local doctors, nurses and other medical professionals for the same reason.

In July, the Federal Government made it possible for HIV-positive people to collect their antiretroviral CORRECT therapy medications from community pharmacies.

Before that, the scripts could only be filled by hospital chemists.

Sexual health expert Dr David Smith says about 60% of his patients prefer to have their scripts filled by hospital pharmacists.

"HIV is a diagnosis that is feared and that leads to a high level of stigma and discrimination regardless of the amount of education that is done," the Northern NSW Local Health District Sexual Health medical director said.

"There are certainly some patients who ... will go to great measures to hide the fact that they've got the infection and that they're needing the medication."

Dr Smith said people were often afraid to reveal their diagnosis because of "preconceived" ideas of how people would respond.

"For many people the reality is quite different once they've crossed the line of keeping these things hidden, which is great," he said.

Pharmacy Guild of Australia spokesman Greg Turnbull said the privacy was in the forefront of PGA members' minds.

"The guild is aware of understandable concerns about privacy associated with these medicines," Mr Turnbull said.

"People should be aware that they can talk to their pharmacist confidentially and ask for a conversation to take place in a private space where appropriate."

Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley said she was "disappointed and concerned" that HIV-positive residents did not feel comfortable with their health services.

"Everyone, no matter where they are in the country, should feel comfortable to visit their local health professional without stigma or discrimination," Ms Ley said.

"If any form of discrimination is occurring it is completely unacceptable and I would be incredibly disappointed.

"If people think they are being discriminated against then I would encourage them to report it."

Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations executive director Rob Lake said he was not surprised to hear regional residents feared stigma and discrimination.

"One of the things we know is that there are people who will go to another town to see a GP, particularly in smaller towns," Mr Lake said.

"In terms of going to see their local pharmacy, it will be a tough call.

"People might be concerned because others might hear something."

HIV notifications rise across the region

HIV notifications across Northern NSW are rising slightly.

While the Grafton-Lismore region has one of the lowest HIV rates in the state, the area has not been immune to an increase in diagnosis of the disease.

In the first quarter of 2015, two people were diagnosed with HIV.

State-wide there were 82 notifications from the start of January and until the end of March.

Throughout 2014, seven new cases were confirmed across the Northern NSW health region â€" two more than 2013 when five people in the area learned they were HIV positive.

Since 1981, there have been 189 Northern Rivers HIV notifications.

Local publicly funded sexual health clinics conducted about 1000 HIV tests between April last year and the end of March this year.

Northern NSW Local Health District Sexual Health medical director Dr David Smith said diagnosis levels peaked in 2012.

"The data across NSW shows there has been a significant increase in HIV tests," he said.

"We're seeing a glimmer of hope that the NSW HIV strategy is starting to bite."

By the Numbers

2014: Seven new HIV notifications across the Northern NSW health region.

2013: Five new HIV notifications across the Northern NSW health region.

April 1, 2014 to March 31, 2015: There were about 1000 HIV tests at publicly funded sexual health clinics in the region.

The region includes Lismore, Kyogle, Ballina, Tweed and Grafton.

Source: NSW Department of Health.

-APN NEWSDESK