Engaging communities affected by HIV in Cairns and surrounds

By Ben Dawson, Health Promotion and Community Development Officer, Queensland AIDS Council (QuAC)

The Queensland AIDS Council (QuAC) aims to improve the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI), Sistergirl and Brotherboy Queenslanders through prevention programs, by helping people to improve, and have more control over, their health and wellbeing.

In the north of Queensland, Cairns has approximately 250,000 residents. The city is at a geographic cross road being closer to Papua New Guinea, and a similar distance from the nearest north Australian capital city, Darwin, and Queensland’s capital city, Brisbane.

The community is also diverse, with 10% of Cairns’ population and 33% of outback Queensland’s population identify as Indigenous according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

Regional cities and remote communities, including Cairns have to think differently from Brisbane to work effectively with their communities. Staff at QuAC in Cairns have explored options to disseminate health messages among a town whose population is diverse and spread out. In 2007 we supported the birth of Culture, a newsletter devoted to rainbow folk of Cairns and the surrounding areas and distributed at cafes and LGBTI venues in the region. This publication is a vehicle for health promotion, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STI) messaging in Queensland and information about social events for rainbow folk in Cairns.

There are barriers to engaging and educating our communities who are at risk of HIV transmission, including those in regional and remote Queensland and Aboriginal, South Sea Islander and Torres Strait Islander people. People regularly travel between regional cities and remote communities which poses a challenge in trying to communicate with these people. Cultures amongst Indigenous people also vary, so being able to build relationships and engage with health promotion messaging focusing on sexual health is challenging. Many communities have young groups of people who feel shame about even talking about sex, let alone sexual health. Much work has been done to investigate what kinds of programs are needed to resolve these barriers.

QuAC’s 2 Spirits program utilises a whole of health approach for communities to ensure social and emotional wellbeing are improved for Indigenous people. The program engages in culturally appropriate health promotion with Sistergirls and Brotherboys who identify as gender diverse. Health promotion for STIs and HIV prevention is talked about in yarning circles and explored through painting and art workshops. Working closely with Aboriginal Medical Centres, such as Gurriny Yealamucka Health Service, provides opportunities for engagement with young people. An example of this engagement is during young persons’ health check week where staff encourage youth in the Yarrabah community to visit the health service for sexual health screening.

In Cairns, 30% of people identify as overseas-born (ABS). The natural beauty of the region means that tourism is one of Cairn’s main industries. Engaging with overseas born people in regional cities such as Cairns creates an additional challenge for health promotion messaging. In many cultures, HIV is still considered a death sentence, which means service delivery must be tailored to the diverse range of people who visit and live in Cairns. This includes translating online and print resources in to other languages and partnering with other service providers, such as Carers Queensland, who have established in-home services with communities from Asia and the pacific.

In many communities, HIV and STI prevention is complemented by a healthy lifestyle and education to enable Sistergirls, Brotherboys and LGBTI people living in regional and remote Queensland to take control of their health and wellbeing through better access to healthcare services.