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Life of Brian, AIDS activist

It's close on a quarter of a century ago that I first became enmeshed in the world of HIV/AIDS.

I found myself labelled an 'activist', catapulted into confronting my church over its attitude to condoms (especially for use in marriages where one of the partners is HIV-infected); visiting a teenager with HIV in the then notorious Pentridge Prison where prisoners with HIV had died in a protest fire; helping to house frightened people with HIV in Melbourne; reaching to help out a houseful of blood donors in Mexico City who'd been infected while selling their blood; then into Africa, Papua New Guinea, and many other parts of the world.

Last week saw a return to the beginning, where it all began for me as a news journalist (when I was the ABC's chief of staff in its Melbourne newsroom), with an email appeal from New Zealand, and the label of activist applied to me again.

The email came from TVNZ, asking me if I could help find the mother of Eve van Grafhorst so that they could interview her for its Good Morning program to mark World AIDS Day 2008. And yes, I did.

It had been five years since I'd last seen Eve's mother, Gloria, when we were helping Channel 9's A Current Affair mark what would have been Eve's 21st birthday. Eve was the first Australian schoolgirl to be infected by HIV through a blood transfusion. It was the last of 11 transfusions she'd needed to save her life as a 'prem' baby, and it was the one polluted by HIV that finally killed her when she was just 11 years old, in 1993.

Eve's life (1982–1993), and that of her family, have been described as one of the darkest pages in Australia's HIV history. They were chased right out of Australia by a hysterical and terrified community that couldn't — and wouldn't — cope with HIV, into the arms of generous New Zealanders on the other side of the Tasman.

Eve was the inspiration for my establishment of The Australian AIDS Fund, a Catholic charity, that's probably now the smallest agency of its type in Australia.

Our little agency was viewed with suspicion by gay activists and Catholic churchgoers alike in those early days, the one side chanting that we were to be avoided because we 'wouldn't let men sleep together' and the other claiming that we did.

Over the years, we set up several houses in Melbourne to shelter those who needed sheltering and opened Australia's first such facility for women and children, 'Rosehaven', at Clifton Hill, fiercely and publicly criticising the monopoly of the AIDS funding dollar by the burgeoning AIDS councils. One of our houses was set afire. Not much has changed: the little agencies still struggle for breath and money.

Maybe Providence needed us to be brought to our knees in 2002 and our facilities closed for lack of both money and support. Incredible windows waited to be opened.

We shipped our furniture to PNG where it's furnishing that country's first AIDS hospice, 'San Michel', just outside Port Moresby, run by the Franciscan who'd once rented us a beautiful Camberwell house that we'd named 'San Michel'.

Villagers in remote Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries, sent us an SOS. Caught in a seven-year drought and swamped by a sea of AIDS orphans, they needed food and shelter. And we did and are housing them in several houses there, in hand with a Christian community group.

We went on to build them a school, won some Australian federal funding, and the school then ballooned so that it is now catering for over 600 children. As if in a dream, the money came to us and we bought them land, built a maize mill, and a couple of shops and a three ton lorry so that they were no longer dependent on commission agencies when they needed to travel for food, or to attend a footy match.

The school is known as the Australian Primary School at Msema, and was opened by the Australian ambassador. We've since added The Australian Secondary School at nearby Kambona, and then another Australian Primary School at Nogwe in June this year, for 400 (it's now educating 602); and we're bulding our second Australian Secondary school, also at Nogwe, for 300 teenagers.

All up, with our assistance to other schools in Malawi, we're helping educate over 2000 children, a number of them AIDS orphans and or infected by HIV. The enormous tumble in the value of the Australian dollar has us anxious now, which is why I'm telling you our story. We're only small, and we have no paid staff.

A year or so ago, we became involved in sending knitted clothing to AIDS orphans in Africa, that soon broadened out into needy children the world over, even deep into Russia, Nepal, Rumania, Albania, South America and yes, inland Australia too.

For a year or so we've been helping a South African mother of nine living in Johanesburg who's been renovating a large dilapidated house that's now home to 29 little ones with HIV/AIDS, aged between one and six years old. It's called Noah's Ark.

Days ago, I alerted the Australian media to a bizarre plan emanating from Indonesia's Papua Province where a doctor hopes to microchip those with HIV. The word 'activist' returned. And given the huge numbers of people whose lives are blighted by AIDS, God knows activists are still needed.

World Aids Day 2008
The Australian AIDS Fund

Topic tags: brian haill, aids activist, world aids day



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