Stigma, taboo and stereotyping shroud their subject matter, but Dr Peter Saxton, Director of the Gay Men's Sexual Health research group in the Section of Social and Community Health, is seeing positive outcomes.
The GMSH group was established in 2013 with seeding grants from the New Zealand AIDS Foundation (NZAF) and UniServices Ltd, and aims to promote research into HIV and sexual health among gay, bisexual, takataapui and other men who have sex with men (MSM) in New Zealand.
Dr Saxton explains its background, “Thirty years into the HIV epidemic there was still no university position in New Zealand dedicated to HIV and sexual health behavioural research, policy and prevention. Gay and bisexual men are the population most at risk, so it was natural to begin here. A bequest from NZAF seeded the group, meaning we’re community and NGO focussed, providing practical advice direct to decision makers.”
The group’s remit includes investigator-driven research and behavioural surveillance, advocacy, strategic advice and leadership. However, there can be a reluctance to engage in conversations about sexual health at a policy level, and a sense that it can be deprioritised because few are prepared to champion it says Dr Saxton. “It’s rare for individuals affected by STIs to publicly identify themselves, despite how common they are.”
“Socially, narratives also increasingly position sexual health decision making as individualistic - and people themselves as consumers of products like new tests or drugs - whereas HIV and STIs are by definition epidemics caused by human connectivity and consenting behaviours, and therefore are fundamentally relational phenomena involving partners, communities and populations. That’s the challenge but why it’s exciting,” he says.
He rates the HIV behavioural research programme as one of the significant achievements to date. It has the largest database of sexual partnering among gay and bisexual males in New Zealand, and is well regarded internationally.
The Gay Auckland Periodic Sex Survey (GAPSS) and Gay men’s Online Sex Survey (GOSS) are anonymous repeat cross-sectional programmes that monitor trends in HIV risk behaviours among gay, bisexual, takataapui and other men who have sex with men (MSM) in New Zealand.
The surveys are funded by the Ministry of Health and undertaken collaboratively by the University of Auckland, the University of Otago’s AIDS Epidemiology Group, and NZAF. They are guided by UNAIDS/WHO principles of second-generation HIV behavioural surveillance and have three main aims: to explain patterns in HIV diagnoses in New Zealand; to evaluate HIV prevention by monitoring condom use and testing, including disparities between subgroups of MSM; and to forewarn of emerging HIV and STI risks and enable a timely response.
Dr Saxton goes on to say, “We’re expanding into HPV (human papillomavirus) research among males. We’ve led several symposia on HIV and STIs in the last year, including the 30th Anniversary HIV Conference this month, and assisted with an HIV-themed contemporary art exhibition in January.”
“We continue to press for improved recognition of the health needs of sexual orientation minorities - legal equality should be followed by health equity - and we’ve made multiple submissions. There’s an appetite for our input - we’re now on the blood donor review group, New Zealand Sexual Health Society executive and are formal advisors to Body Positive and NZAF.”
The list of achievements within two years is extraordinary, considering the engine power comes from just two staff members, Dr Saxton and Adrian Ludlam, and a masters student. However, the group collaborates closely with NZAF, the Ministry of Health, the AIDS Epidemiology Group at the University of Otago, and the Immunisation Advisory Centre (IMAC), and is working with students on two hot topics - HPV vaccination for males, and recreational drug use.
Source: The Universtiy of Auckland