While rates of new HIV cases are falling in Australia, there’s been a sharp increase in diagnoses among Asian-born gay men.
Jimmy Chen had never been to a gay club until he moved to Australia from Taiwan three years ago.
But a short-term relationship with a man changed his life last year.
After undergoing a routine three-monthly sexual health status check, the 24-year-old was diagnosed with HIV.
“At the beginning, I just felt empty and also I feel like I don’t have any emotion going on in my mind,” he told SBS News.
While far fewer Australian-born men are being diagnosed with HIV, new diagnoses for gay men born in Southeast Asia, living in Australia, rose sharply between 2014 and 2016.
There was also an increase among Northeast Asian-born men.
Data from New South Wales shows the alarming trend is continuing.
There were 29 per cent more new cases among overseas-born gay men in the first quarter of this year, compared to the previous five years.
At the same time, the number of Australian-born gay men newly diagnosed fell 63 per cent.
CEO of the AIDS Council of New South Wales (ACON), Nicolas Parkhill, says criminalisation of homosexuality in migrants’ home countries, such as Indonesia, could be in part to blame.
“You’re going to have a very different perspective I think about accessing health care, particularly to get a HIV test or talk about sexual health for fear of privacy, for fear of some sort of reprimand,”
The HIV-prevention drug PREP is now cheaply available for most Australians, but uptake of the game-changing medication is lower among Asian gay men.
Mr Parkhill says that’s because a lot of international students or people on working holidays do not have access to Medicare.
“We’re really keen to work with certainly all governments on what might be an access scheme for people who we certainly know are high risk, certainly know can’t afford or can’t get access to things like PREP or treatment for people we know so that coverage is really, really targeted.”
The organisation is also trialling an education program targeting Chinese gay men.
Tim Chen explains the program is conducted in Mandarin.
“It has a Chinese name ‘Tong shi yao ling yao’, it’s a six-week-long structured workshop and each week has a different topic, like coming out, identity, sexual health, relationships, and getting involved in the communities in the last session.”
It’s one of a range of programs targeting Asian gay men with the aim of increasing the use of prevention strategies, such as condoms and PREP.
ACON hopes to adapt the program to target other Asian ethnicities.
Those that have already contracted HIV could become a key part of the strategy.
Jimmy Chen used to worry about how others would react to his diagnosis.
“At the beginning, I felt what if I tell them my HIV status they might turn away from me. What if I tell my partner, they won’t accept me anymore. And what if just being a stranger next to me and you know I’m HIV positive you might feel uncomfortable… that’s why I feel scared.
But he’s no longer afraid.
“This is a just a thing, a virus living in my body. But it doesn’t change my personality, I’m still who I am.”