New gay men’s sexual health group to investigate public health challenges

17 December 2013

In a first for New Zealand, the Gay Men’s Sexual Health (GMSH) research group was recently established at the University of Auckland’s Department of Social and Community Health.

The new group’s research will focus on improving sexual health, on prevention of HIV and human papillomavirus (HPV) infection and building resilient communities rather than treating disease, says the group’s director, Dr Peter Saxton.

“Treating HIV costs $18 million annually and rising, yet we’re only investing around $2 million to prevent new HIV infections through behaviour change. HPV - the cause of a large proportion of anal, head and neck and penile cancers - hits gay and bisexual men the hardest, but they’re not offered free vaccination. This makes little public health sense, and is ethically problematic when we have such an effective intervention”, he says.

Immediate projects will address vaccination and condom use, sexual connectivity within New Zealand’s concentrated gay male communities and whether gay and bisexual men feel comfortable disclosing their sexuality to their GP.

“We feel the timing is right. Gay communities have recently achieved legal equality in New Zealand and attention has now moved to health equality. We want to help realise that aspiration by improving the knowledge base and offering leadership and advocacy” says Dr Saxton.

The new initiative is supported by a fellowship from the New Zealand AIDS Foundation (NZAF) and a seeding grant from Auckland Uniservices Ltd.

“This is significant because research funding for sexual health and the health of sexual orientation minorities is scarce in this country”, says Dr Saxton. “Both the topics (sexual health) and the population group (gay men) carry unwarranted stigma.”

“We’ve noticed a reluctance to prioritise relevant research and a tendency to put research proposals into the ‘too hard’ basket, even in the face of sound evidence. Sustaining a knowledge base to inform effective public health action is a major challenge” says Dr Saxton.

Encouragingly that stigma surrounding sexual health and sexuality is fast becoming outdated, he says.

As well as broad shifts in public acceptance of homosexuality witnessed during the marriage equality debates, he points to the recently released Rainbow Health report funded by the Auckland District Health Board, and next year’s planned national Sexual and Reproductive Health Survey by the Ministry of Health, as offering momentum.

“Sexual health and sexuality ought to be seen as mainstream health issues. It’s our goal to foster greater understanding and competence across the health sector to improve the health of our communities” says Dr Saxton.

The group plans to collaborate with other research groups to combine expertise on specific projects.

Existing partners include the AIDS Epidemiology group at the University of Otago, infectious diseases specialists within the Department of Molecular Medicine and Pathology at the University of Auckland and the community-based NZAF.

Dr Saxton says health research funding is highly competitive and the group must be successful with grant applications and attract benefactors who share their vision if they’re to sustain their work.

 

The Gay Men’s Sexual Health research group website can be found at this weblink .

Dr Peter Saxton can be contacted on p.saxton@auckland.ac.nz or 027 604 1930.

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Gay Men Sexual Health group director Dr Peter Saxton (right) with group researcher Adrian Ludlam.