Caption: Mardi Gras brings out the best of Sydney... and can leave many with the worst. Credit: Rhiannon Soliman

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BY RHIANNON SOLIMAN

As the glitz and glamour of Sydney’s 41st Mardi Gras wears off, many LGBTQ+ individuals were left with something somewhat less glamorous. Yes, STDs.

There are many things that can prevent people from avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, particularly HIV, which disproportionately affects the LGBTQ+ community.

Mark Villar, who regularly volunteers with centres such as the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON) and the Albion Centre, stressed the importance of sexual health clinics geared at LGBTQ+ people.

“These services promote knowledge and understanding, reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV, educate people in how to navigate sex, relationships, status disclosure, and the importance of regular testing,” he said.

“ACON services in particular bring queer people together, helping us make connections and build friendships and relationships.”

Although there are many doctors and clinics in Sydney that specialise in sexual health, LGBT-specific ones are invaluable.

“A bad experience with a healthcare provider can result in LGBTQ people becoming hesitant to access those services in the future,” said Reg Domingo, who works at ACON.

“Medical education has not always been inclusive, so it’s reasonable to suggest that some healthcare providers who come into contact with LGBTQ people may not have the most correct information, may make assumptions or use inappropriate questions or language,” he said.

New South Wales provides those living with HIV with free medication as part of a campaign to end HIV transmission by 2020. However, people living in other states may not be as fortunate.

In Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania, access to HIV medication such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) costs around $40 per month. Although PrEP is supported by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, bringing the cost down from around $850 per month, it still may be unaffordable for many people.

“People from low socioeconomic [backgrounds] who skip their meds out of necessity may not be able to maintain an undetectable viral load,” said Mark.

If this occurs, the HIV virus can become transmittable.

According to last year’s Gay Community Periodic Survey conducted by UNSW, only 21.4% of non-HIV positive men took PrEP on a regular basis, which is required to prevent the contraction of HIV.

Recent research in South Australia showed that 36 per cent of HIV diagnoses were classified as being “late,” which could cause unnecessary health complications in a patient, as well as an increased transmission rate to others. A delay in one’s diagnosis may result from a lack of information available, having no testing centres nearby or, in some cases, concern around being outed.

Back in Sydney, geographical location can also play a part in maintaining sexual health.

“As someone living in Campbelltown, access to these services is not as easy. An ACON out west would be nice,” said Mark.

According to Reg, while a new centre in the Western Suburbs isn’t currently in the works, there are programs that can help.

“In Western Sydney we have a staff member dedicated to working in partnership with local councils, local health districts and other non-for-profit organisations to deliver programs specifically for LGBTQ communities,” he said.