Vile Email Smear Shows HIV Stigma Still Alive In Australia

A vile email claiming Wentworth frontrunner Kerryn Phelps had been diagnosed with HIV shows Australians still misunderstand the virus.

An email targeting independent candidate Phelps has circulated among some Sydney voters, claiming she had withdrawn from the race after contracting HIV. Both those claims are incorrect, and the doctor criticised the "outrageous" claim.

"Just when you think that we have come so far in destigmatising HIV, for somebody to use this as a slur in an email in a political campaign just shows us we got a long way to go," she told ABC on Thursday.

"I think there's no question there's a homophobic element to it."

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, can progress to AIDS. In 2017, around two-thirds of HIV diagnoses in Australia came from sexual contact between men.

READ MORE: Wentworth And The Simmering Mood For Change

READ MORE: Kerryn Phelps On Peter Dutton, Being 'Sensible', And Chocolate

But the email highlights a wider problem of stigma still surrounding HIV, despite remarkably successful treatments that can effectively prevent the infection being transmitted or contracted. HIV rates are dropping among the wider Australian population, with a recent study reporting overall diagnoses at a seven-year low, but an uptick in rates among heterosexual Australians.

Just 963 new cases of HIV infection were recorded in 2017, compared to nearly 2500 in 1987.

(Getty Images)

"HIV cannot be transmitted through: saliva or kissing; casual contact like hugging and shaking hands; mosquito bites or by eating food prepared by a person living with HIV," according to the Victorian government's Better Health initiative.

"It never comes as a huge surprise when someone ignorantly tries to use HIV as a wedge or reason why an individual should be shamed or withdrawing from life, or incapable of participating wholly in society," Nic Holas, co-founder of HIV organisation The Institute of Many, told ten daily.

He said his "heart sank" when he heard of the vile Phelps email.

"It's really disappointing to see it rear its ugly head again."

Holas said "extraordinary advances" and new drugs such as the pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) pill, and awareness campaigns around testing and treating the infection, had seen HIV rates drop and danger around the infection lessen.

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) has been hailed as a breakthrough in preventing the spread of HIV (Daniel Born/The Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

However, the history of HIV and AIDS in this country -- including panic in the 1980s as the infection emerged, and the infamous Grim Reaper ads -- continued to have a lasting effect on the Australian psyche.

"[Having HIV] would be absolutely no reason someone couldn't be a candidate or have a life in politics," he said.

"But the mind goes back to the AIDS crisis when it was headline news, it had a huge impact on the Australian consciousness. So much has happened but we're constantly having to remind people it’s not the case. You can imagine why people are still scared of the AIDS boogie man."

Jane Costello, president of HIV advocacy organisation Positive Life, said she was "sad" to hear of the email smear.

"There's so much misinformation and stigma around people living with HIV. It's why some people are still afraid to discuss their diagnosis," she told ten daily.

"[The email] is harking back to the days when it was virtually a death sentence. But there are such medical advances and treatments now that people living with HIV, if diagnosed early, can lead a happy healthy normal life."

"The only assumption is that there was some inference people should fear HIV, or that it would be a reason not to vote for her."

Wentworth is a socially progressive, diverse electorate, and Phelps is a well-known figure and LGBTI advocate, so it is unclear how effective the HIV claims would have been anyway. But for her part, she said she would not let the ugly smear mar the final days of her campaign.

"I am not  pulling out of the race and I have not been diagnosed with HIV or any other disease. I'm in very good health," she told ABC.