Nicky Park

Editor of Life & Style.

New Zealanders living with HIV

New Zealanders living with HIV. (l-r) Jewel Grimshaw, Daniel Nehemia and Jane Bruning.
Photo / Herald Online
New Zealanders living with HIV. (l-r) Jewel Grimshaw, Daniel Nehemia and Jane Bruning. Photo / Herald Online

Jewel Grimshaw got HIV from the man she was engaged to at 20.

Daniel Nehemia was involved in his first "full on gay" relationship when he found out he'd contracted HIV from his partner.

Jane Bruning found out a man she had sex with in Africa died from AIDS. Two years later she tested positive to HIV.

It's hard to put a finger on the number of people in New Zealand living with HIV. 3474 Kiwis have been diagnosed since it first appeared. About 680 of them have developed AIDS and died.

Bruning runs a national support network for Kiwis affected by HIV and says the figure now lies somewhere between 1800 and 2500. There are hundreds more who have the virus but don't know it. And others who won't admit they're infected.

Bruning says she can count on two hands the number of people prepared to speak openly about their condition. Most feel silenced by the stigma.

"People think I'm (HIV) positive because I'm a slut," says Grimshaw. The 35-year-old was 17 and totally healthy when she fell in love and got engaged to a fellow New Zealander.

The pair split three years later and Grimshaw took herself off for her regular sexual health check.

"At 21, I got diagnosed with HIV," she says.

"I still thought it was a gay disease, I didn't think it would happen to me. I'm as straight as straight as can be, never used needles, and never went overseas. It was total disbelief.

"It happened to me, it could happen to you.

"I got diagnosed in June, his new partner got diagnosed in July and then he got diagnosed with AIDS in August.

"We estimated he had it for ten years and didn't even know. He doesn't know where he got it from. He got it in his early teens.

"At first I got really angry that he'd given it to me and I was thinking of suing him (but) I just got to the point where I was like, I'm not going to do that sort of stuff because he's got to live in his own little hell now."

They're still friends and both are physically doing well.

"I wish I didn't have HIV, but I wouldn't change my situation," says Grimshaw.

Bruning says her story is far more common of heterosexual New Zealanders with HIV. She was 31, with a six-year-old son, working on safaris in Tanzania, when she got a phone call informing her a man she'd had sex with two years earlier had died from salmonella, typhoid and AIDS.

"That was 1990. At that time nobody really talked about it. There was no medication, it was a death sentence and Africa was still very much in denial that they had it," she says.

After a positive diagnosis, Bruning recalls a nun showing her a crude poster of an African man, progressively getting worse. The last picture was a hole in the ground and the writing: R.I.P.

"I said to her, 'so how long do you think I have?' She said ... 'you'd be lucky to have three years'. So it was a really scary time.

"I was in a relationship I had been in for two years. So I had to go home and tell him ... unfortunately he was also positive.

"He said, 'we don't talk about it, we don't tell anybody, keep quiet, they'll just think I'm a drug addict or a homo and they'll think you sleep around'."

Bruning became depressed and "very, very scared."

"The first night that I got diagnosed I tried to go to sleep but I literally woke up every half hour. I woke up, sitting bolt upright, I thought I was going to die in my sleep.

"I guess if I'm really honest, I did sleep around with people, so you know, there's my punishment. I don't blame anybody. I don't blame the guy that died. He didn't know. I had unprotected sex. I knew what the consequences could be. But somehow it just manifested internally that I must be really bad."

Three years later, the couple split and Burning moved back to the North Island with her son. But it wasn't until nearly a decade later she began to realise her fate might not be so grim.

"(When you're) diagnosed you really value the little things in life. Now sometimes I feel myself becoming a little bit shallow again, worrying about having wrinkles, when in actual fact I never thought I was going to be alive.

"HIV is as individual as the person. Some people can contract it and they'll die within four or five years ... I know someone who has been drug free for 17 years."

Daniel Nehemia calls the meds his "staying alive pills". The 49-year-old was working as a nurse when he became openly gay in 2000 and soon after was involved in his first "full on gay" relationship. Unbeknownst to him, the man was HIV positive.

He says there was lots of talk about HIV in the gay community. He'd heard from others that the man he was sleeping with was carrying the virus so he went for a sexual health check.

"I remember having unprotected sex, because I thought, I'll just try it. The person that I was with was taking medications ... but I just thought it was for a health issue ... I should have done my homework," he says.

"I became homophobic, I became very angry, I became suicidal and I thought 'what is my family going to say?'

"I was blaming the gay community for giving it to me."

"I'd always practiced safe sex, but they say love is blind, so that's what happened, love was blind."

On July 15, 2001 Nehemia found out he was HIV positive. "It's like a birthday, you'll never forget it." It took him a year of counseling and some time across the Tasman to build up the strength to tell his family.

The response was a "typical Maori reaction," he says.

"(They said) 'well that's what happens when you play around'. You play with a gun it's gonna go off.'" They've since shown their support and Nehemia is studying Maori development and spreading the word about the risks of unsafe sex.

Bruning says there's very few people who will go on to develop AIDS in New Zealand - that's when the immune system has totally depleted, exposing the body to attack from other viruses. In 2010, 39 people were identified with AIDS.

"It was called AIDS (in the 1980s) because everybody was dying and they'd get diagnosed and within couple of years they were dead," she explains.

However, there's been a steady rise in the number of people who have HIV in New Zealand over the last decade.

Nehemia puts this down to heavy drug and alcohol abuse that leads to unprotected sex, combined with a lack of education. Bruning points out a sense of complacency because medication means four pills a day and the prospect of a long life.

While the trio are fighting fit and getting on with their lives in Auckland, they say the most significant impact being HIV positive has had is on their personal lives. People with HIV can't travel to 22 countries, they get pregnant naturally or breastfeed, they worry about if they have to tell people about the virus, and when. There are side effects to the meds and all three long for an intimate relationship.

"I'd love to be in a relationship again, but people just don't understand," says Jewel, who would one day like to have a child, if the timing is right.

"Generally people just put their heads in the sand. It makes me feel horrible that people would not even look at it or understand it."

The only way to contract HIV is from direct blood to blood contact, unprotected sex, both vaginal and anal, and through breastfeeding. There's no harm in kissing or heavy petting.

Bruning's been single for 18 years now.

"Initially that was because I thought I was going to die, I thought what's the point? I just focused on bringing up my son. When he got married and left home, I guess for the last six years, I've been very lonely."

* For more information about HIV or AIDS or support, visit www.nzaf.org.nz or www.positivewomen.org.nz/index.asp

- HERALD ONLINE

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