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HIV-hepatitis project aims to reduce health inequities

Rudi Maxwell -

Despite advancements in effective treatments for HIV and viral hepatitis, the rates of diagnosis are disproportionately higher in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities compared with the non-Indigenous population.

But a new initiative is using local Indigenous connections and knowledge to try and address inequities in prevention, treatment and care of the blood-borne diseases.

The Guiding Local Opportunities for Wellbeing (GLOWS) initiative, created by the Lowitja Institute, the University of Queensland Poche Centre for Indigenous Health and Gilead Sciences Australia, is calling for Indigenous-led solutions to be designed to address the needs of specific communities.

Director of the UQ Poche Centre for Indigenous Health Professor James Ward, a Pitjantjatjara and Nukunu man, said the disparity and inequity in the health system for Indigenous people had been accepted for far too long.

"The time has come to change this discourse," he said.

"We now have the science to start to dream of eliminating, as well as drastically improve the lives of people living with, HIV and viral hepatitis but where we often fail is in the implementation of science at a local level.

"That's why this initiative is so important as it provides a mechanism that will enable communities to drive local, evidenced-based solutions matched to local needs."

In 2022 rates of hepatitis C notifications were seven times greater in Indigenous communities compared with the non-Indigenous population and 1.3 times for HIV.

Prof Ward said, while there had been efforts to try to bring down rates of new cases of hepatitis C in Indigenous communities, they hadn't proved effective.

"Sometimes programs are rolled out at the national level that don't match local needs, sometimes there's additional resources required in communities to, for instance, extract patient management systems data to work out who accesses the service with HIV or viral hepatitis and how often they do that," he said.

"There is a need for others who have been through treatment to help guide the interventions at the local area level, and they differ between urban and regional and remote communities and so what this program offers is opportunities for local communities to drive local solutions for their local needs.

"There's so much to be done in this space and it's just not the healthcare service barriers or social barriers - there's cultural barriers, there's stigma and discrimination that plays all into this."

Lowitja Institute deputy chief executive Paul Stewart said the program hoped to engage with organisations eager to work with Indigenous people in prisons, injecting drug-users and young people.

"That's where the issues are situated with HIV and viral hepatitis so why wouldn't we want to understand and learn from the mob in these in these situations?" he said.

"We want to flip the narrative on the ways in which research has been done in our communities.

"Mob knows what best works for our communities and so, if we can put research back into Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander community hands we hope to improve health and wellbeing outcomes for our mob."

The program represents Gilead Sciences' largest ever commitment to health equity for Indigenous communities globally, with $US3 million ($A4.6 million) each to Australia and Canada over three years.

In the first year grants will focus on large and medium projects up to $800,000 and seeding grants and scholarships of $30,000 and $25,000.

Rudi Maxwell - AAP

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