Witness Seminar: How harm reduction and community involvement stopped the spread of AIDS

July 14 / 140

In the 1980s, Dr Alex Wodak (pictured) began distributing sterile needles to drug-users to help reduce the spread of AIDS.
In the 1980s, Dr Alex Wodak (pictured) began distributing sterile needles to drug-users to help reduce the spread of AIDS.

James Waghorne recounts the Witness Seminar: Communication and Health Policy Creation during the Australian AIDS Crisis. Dr Waghorne is Research Officer at the History of the University Unit.

In the mid-1980s, Alex Wodak lay awake at night. The Director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital in central Sydney, where the first case had been diagnosed in 1982, was aware his hospital stood at the centre of an epidemic for which it had no effective treatment, and which threatened to spread into the wider population. 

Dr Wodak changed his mind on several things over the months of sleeplessness, and he began a policy of civil disobedience by distributing sterile needles to people who used drugs.

Dr Wodak was among a panel of key figures from Australia’s response to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, who were brought together by the University of Melbourne on Sunday as a satellite session of the AIDS 2014 Conference. 

The event was a Witness Seminar, a type of public discussion that draws together testimony from a range of different groups and individuals, creating a primary historical source before an audience of active participants.

The panel also featured: 

Dr Neal Blewett, federal Minister for Health through the crisis

Professor David Penington, head of the AIDS Task Force

Gino Vumbaca, who coordinated the New South Wales network of needle and syringe exchange programs

Judy Frecker, a nurse with 30 years’ experience treating people living with AIDS

Dr Adam Carr, a journalist and editor with gay news publications in the 1980s, and President of the Victorian AIDS Council 1986–7

David Menadue, a founder of People Living with HIV/AIDS Victoria and leading figure in public health. 

The discussion was chaired by Dr Norman Swan from ABC Radio National, who during the 1980s was a journalist covering the AIDS crisis.

The discussion traced the way in which the policies of harm reduction were effective at combating the spread of the disease.

These methods – exemplified by the needle and syringe exchange programs developed by Dr Wodak – were contrasted with more punitive methods of containing the disease.

The engagement of community organisations representing affected groups — who led campaigns directed at their own communities and ensured that their special needs were heard — also helped to lessen the spread.

The seminar presented the challenges on the national policy level, managing state and federal politics, coordinating the medical response and quelling public hysteria through a mosaic of personal testimony. 

At the local level, speakers discussed what it meant to be diagnosed with the disease, and the 24-hour regimen of treatment. 

The participants recreated the urgency from the height of the AIDS crisis, and the way in which the disease transformed the lives of all those swept up in the crisis.

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