The New Zealand AIDS Foundation is changing its name to honour one of its co-founders Bruce Burnett who raised awareness around HIV and AIDS in Aotearoa during the 80s.  

From Thursday, the New Zealand AIDS Foundation is now the Burnett Foundation Aotearoa.

Bruce Burnett was a New Zealander living in San Francisco. He became unwell and came back to Aotearoa in 1983, and began to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS which led to major changes to public health. 

The number of people diagnosed with HIV in New Zealand last year is the lowest since the late 1990s.

Bruce was also one of the first people in Aotearoa to share his experiences of living with AIDS so he could help educate and provide support to the wider community. 

His friend Bill Logan who also helped set up the foundation said Bruce was never someone who expected personal recognition but he would have been blown away by the name change. 

“He was good fun, a great cook, interesting and insightful, and he looked after the community,” Bill said. 

Bill said when they first set up the foundation they could see a future where they’d be able to broaden the focus on other health concerns queer people experienced. 

Now is the time, he said. 

‘Important for us to honour the legacy and work done in the early days’

General manager of the foundation Joe Rich said “we named it after Bruce - without what he and his allies did, New Zealand wouldn’t have had the successful response it had”.

When the foundation consulted with communities, there was an agreement that it was time to move on from having AIDs in the name, Joe said. 

“Our work keeps changing and the nature of the way we support communities has changed to meet the needs of those we serve. We now provide testing for HIV and a full range of STIs because they intersect so closely and we also provide mental health support.”  

Having AIDS in the foundation’s name was no longer reflective of what it did, Joe said. 

“I still hear from clients saying they struggle to walk in the door because our name has AIDS in it. It can create a barrier and discomfort. It’s important for us to have a name that is more reflective of what we’re doing and who we are as an organisation.”

Joe says the name change means they can also keep the history alive. 

“That is such an important moment in queer and New Zealand history so it’s important we retain what happened - it’s a true public health success story. 

“It’s important that we continue to honour Bruce’s legacy and to stay safe and keep testing and keep transmissions low.” 

Rodrigo Olin lives with HIV and works at the foundation. 

Originally from Mexico, Rodrigo was diagnosed with HIV in 2003 and since then has dedicated his time to working on the HIV response in Aotearoa. 

The 38-year-old said the new name was a change that reflects how the landscape and response has evolved in Aotearoa. 

“The name changes but we still have the same kaupapa,” Rodrigo said. 

“There’s so much to do to make sure people living with HIV can flourish in New Zealand and be free of discrimination.” 

What is HIV?

HIV is a virus which attacks the immune system, making it hard for the body to fight off infections and illnesses. 

It spreads when infected blood, genital fluids or breast milk enters into the bloodstream. 

This mainly occurs during unprotected sex, but can also happen when people share contaminated needles or a parent with HIV passes it to their child during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. 

There is no cure but effective medication can make a person’s viral load undetectable, which means they can live a normal healthy life without transmitting it to others. 

If HIV is not treated with effective medication, it can lead to AIDS which stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome - this is the late stage and most severe form of HIV infection. 

HIV cases in Aotearoa continue to decline

The number of people diagnosed with HIV in Aotearoa continue to decline, research from the University of Otago published last month has found. 

Last year, of the 112 people notified with HIV, 67 were first diagnosed in New Zealand and 43 were reported to have gotten HIV locally. 

The number of people diagnosed with HIV in New Zealand last year is the lowest since the late 1990s. 

Joe said the foundation expects to see numbers go down further. 

“Moving forward, even when we get those numbers low, we have to keep our foot on the gas by educating generations - it’s not just going to stay low.” 

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