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HIV/AIDS in New Zealand


Aotearoa / New Zealand has been fortunate to be spared the worst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

  • Its culture at the height of the epidemic was a relatively liberal one, allowing the passage of Homosexual Law Reform with an age of consent of 16, the same as for heterosexuals, in 1986 (human rights protection for people with HIV and AIDS was delayed until 1993), and a needle-exchange scheme for IV drug users from 1988. New Zealand was the first country in the world with a government-sponsored condom programme (though the media were not at first allowed to show a condom). The religious "right" is small.
  • It never adopted the large-scale orgiastic gay "scene" of parts of the US.
  • As a First World ("Northern") country it has a relatively high standard of medical care, and testing is readily available.
  • Its publicly owned blood-banks have never paid donors, so giving blood was not a source of income for drug users.
  • But most of all, its geographical isolation delayed the arrival of the virus, so that we could learn from other countries' mistakes and successes.

Thus the rate of AIDS notification in New Zealand is much lower than Australia or the US:

Rate per 100,000


Worst area

New Zealand (to end of 1997)


37.9 (Auckland)

Australia (June 1996 - latest)


64.9 (NSW)

US (June 1996 - latest. NB, the US uses a broader definition of AIDS.)


1434 (San Francisco)


At this writing, the total number of people known to be or have been HIV antibody seropositive is1260; to the end of 1997, 641 had been notified with AIDS; over 500 have now died. The number of people living with AIDS has steadily increased since 1985 as the life expectancy of PLWAs increases. The annual rate of AIDS notifications rose steadily to a peak of 78 in 1991, and since then has fluctuated between 43 and 76.

Though the syndrome was first noticed in the US in mid-1981, the first death here (anonymous, in New Plymouth) was not until 1983. In May 1983 gay men (but not other men who have sex with men) were asked to refrain from donating blood. 42 people (as of December 31, 1997) have contracted HIV in New Zealand from blood or blood products. In August 1983, AIDS was declared a notifiable disease.

The National Gay Rights Coalition produced a leaflet, "AIDS: Choices and Chances", in December 1983, when it was still a mystery illness, blood and semen were suspected of being involved in transmission, and a virus was only one of several possible explanations.

"The truth is that AIDS is NOT easily caught, does NOT spread rapidly or indiscriminately and does NOT threaten to swamp whole populations."

The leaflet urged caution in sexual practice but did not mention condoms.

Pioneers in warning the gay community about the new disease were Bruce Burnett in Auckland and Bill Logan and Phil Parkinson in Wellington. They formed the Aids Support Network, which became the Auckland and Wellington branches of the NZ AIDS Foundation.

The ASN managed to prevent the Health Department from spreading panic when a man called Gary came home from Australia with HIV in 1984. In a press statement it pointed out that "The danger to your health is not the new arrival from Sydney, but the people who have AIDS but who don't yet know it."

The Health Department ordered that Gary's body be cremated (in December 1984), but New Zealand undertakers never refused to handle bodies, nor was there any directly AIDS-related anti-gay violence. Before the virus was well understood, hospitals took exaggerated precautions, making visitors gown and mask up, and issuing plastic cutlery to patients.

Bruce Burnett was the mainstay of the ASN, producing regular newsletters and taking a one-man AIDS roadshow the length of the country in August 1984. It received a luke-warm response in large centres, but more enthusiastic in the provinces, where as Bruce observed, even an AIDS seminar was an excuse for gay men to meet. He began setting up counselling workshops on "Shanti" principles.

The ASN issued a pamphlet addressed to gay and bisexual men, "Great Sex - Healthy Sex". When a test became available early in 1985, it warned gay men against taking it till anonymity could be assured, since there seemed little that could be done if one tested positive. The ASN became a charitable trust in March 1985, received a government grant in April 1985, and changed its name to the New Zealand AIDS Foundation in September 1985 - Bruce Burnett having died in June.

In general, the efforts of the religious right to make a moral issue of HIV/AIDS failed. Their excesses, especially the "Nuremberg Rally" against law reform in September 1985, blew up in their faces.

Anti-AIDS prejudice took a more personal form, with the disease going unnamed at funerals and the deceased's real family at the time of his death, his lover and gay support group, consigned to the back of the hall.

The NZAF focussed on the gay community from the outset, "making safe sex" in Director Warren Lindberg's words "a gay community norm." As means to this end, it promoted safe-sex advice, condoms and lube at gay sex venues. It was greatly freed to do this by the passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill on July 9, 1986. The relative success of the NZAF is largely due to its image as gay-friendly and sex-positive - which attracts the enmity of moralists. (The Hero, Devotion and Freedom dance-parties of 1991 onwards began as safe-sex initiatives of NZAF.)

But the medical profession still did not contact the gay community when it organised a national conference on AIDS in November 1987. Bill Logan wrote a paper about the uncomfortable relationship between the community and the medical profession, but was not allowed to present it at that conference.

A needle-exchange scheme for injecting drug users, administered by the Health Department through pharmacies, came into effect on May 16, 1988. Self-help initiatives by the injecting community (in co-operation with the sex industry, in the form of the Prostitutes' Collective) have probably been equally important in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS between users. Government policy is still to prohibit condoms in prison, however.

The other major use of AIDS as a moral issue was the stigmatisation and prosecution of a Kenyan musician, Peter Mwai, who had unprotected sex with a number of women. He was convicted in 1994 of knowingly infecting a person with disease. In January 1997 he was paroled from prison to a hospice on compassionate grounds, but returned to prison and deported when he was released in 1998..

Notable New Zealanders who have died of AIDS complications include pop singer and rugby promoter Lew Prime, who allowed a documentary to be made about him in the months leading up to his death, television producer John Barningham, actor/producer Rod Horne, bodybuilder and photographer Neil Truhubovich, and drag artiste and musician Arthur Tauhore.

Several others have made AIDS awareness their life-work, notably Bruce Burnett, Tom McLean (his book "If I Should Die" was launched three days before he died in 1989) and Tom O'Donoghue (d. 1994).

But the public face of AIDS in New Zealand was a little girl, Eve van Grafthorst. Infected by a blood transfusion, she was driven from her kindergarten in Australia in 1986. She settled with her mother in Napier and was a tireless campaigner for AIDS awareness - almost consciously compressing a lifetime into a few years - until her death in November 1993, aged 11.

As well as a New Zealand AIDS Quilt, the dead are commemorated twice annually, on December 1, World AIDS Day, and in mid-May (winter here) with Beacons of Hope, a torchlight remembrance which reached a peak in 1993 with bonfires lit nationwide, and in Wellington a choir, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and fireworks. More recent commemorations have been less opulent.

Long-term survivors include Daniel Fielding (diagnosed 1984) and dancer Michael Parmenter (1989).

  • Fielding, his partner and four others were diagnosed together. He has been very public and active in AIDS awareness work. He has since taken over and operated a business, and was on the board of the Devotion Festival.
  • Parmenter was diagnosed with HIV and abdominal cancer (lymphoma) at the same time. He had to fight the hospital to get surgery or chemotherapy for the lymphoma, because they gave him only months to live. It was only after that that he was able start coming to terms with HIV. He has been public and active in AIDS awareness work. His last dance work in New Zealand was the frank, autobiographical "A Long Undressing". In August 1998 he was still involved in dance.


Thanks to Paula Brettkelly, Dr Nigel Dickson, Daniel Fielding, Vern Keller, Warren Lindberg, Bill Logan, Phil Parkinson, Michael Parmenter, Roger Swanson. Written by Hugh Young.

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