With alert levels eased for most of the country, experts are calling on New Zealanders to consider their sexual health before going buck wild beyond their bubbles.
We all have something we miss during lockdown, something we are counting down the days to get back to. Like psychological castaways, we curate a list of things to do once the HMS Bloomfield delivers us from isolation: KFC, live music, a good old bonk with someone you’ve barely met. But sexual health experts are asking New Zealanders to see the changing alert levels as a rare opportunity to break the transmission of more than just Covid-19.
Dr Jason Myers, chief executive of the New Zealand Aids Foundation, is urging people in alert level two to get a sexual health check-up before returning to casual sex. “As the chain of transmission of Covid-19 gets broken as we’re all locked down and sticking with our bubbles, so too do the chains of transmission for all the STIs we know about – gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, even HIV.”
Before we engage in casual sex outside of our bubble, says Myers, we need to get tested. Because if STIs are caught with their pants down, so to speak, New Zealand has a realistic chance of eliminating them from circulation.
As the country shut up shop for the first lockdown last year, rates of serious STI infections fell for the first time since a period of steady increase began in 2015. Myers says that while they cannot put the decrease directly down to New Zealand’s lockdown and closed borders, the countrywide quarantine stemmed the local transmission of HIV and syphilis infections, as well as those that generally came from people living abroad.
The halt in increases was critical, he says, as the effects of infections like syphilis can still be deadly. “In New Zealand, there is absolutely no reason why we still have cases of syphilis. It really is not an infection we should be seeing in the developed world. Alarmingly, in the last few years we’ve seen syphilis move from the populations who are traditionally impacted – gay and bisexual men – into the heterosexual population.”
“We are even seeing babies born – and die – with undiagnosed syphilis. They are born to mothers who are living with syphilis, and this is a tragedy.”
The response to the Covid-19 pandemic shares some similarities with the HIV/AIDS Crisis, says Myers. While internationally the response to HIV/AIDS served to further demonise marginalised communities – “The four Hs” says Myers, “Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs and heroin addicts” – in New Zealand a strong legislative and governmental approach created the conditions for a comparative public health success story.
“The legislation that was set up meant that communities impacted or at risk of being impacted could be reached by organisations like NZAF – homosexuality was decriminalised, sex work was decriminalised, possession of needles and syringes was decriminalised, sexuality was put under the Human Rights Act – all of these things set the scene for a really strong community-government partnership which has managed HIV well over the years.”
Once again, the government’s Covid-19 response has created an opportunity for community-based action in controlling infections. Beyond the lockdowns, which have broken the chain of transmission, Myers is urging people to engage with the sexual health system.
The process of an STI test is simple. For most people, a full check-up involves a few swabs and a blood test that can be done at any number of sexual health clinics or GPs. Positive test results will be returned within a couple of days, and most STIs can be cleared up with a single course of antibiotics. HIV can be treated with publicly funded antiretroviral medications or prevented with PrEP, also free to the user, which reduces the chances of infection even during unprotected sex to a near impossibility when taken as prescribed.
As with dealing with Covid-19, however, prevention still remains our best defence. Condoms should be considered as the mask, hand sanitizer and social distancing of the penis. Free condoms are available at many sexual health clinics, and via mail-order through the NZAF Ending HIV website. When lockdown ends, and your Tinder dates move offline, Myers says it is critical that New Zealanders practise safe sex to continue the downward trend of infections.
“We might not get another chance at this,” says Myers. “It’s hard to understate the opportunity that is sitting there. We’ve sat through these 1pm briefings and watched the numbers go down, and that’s because people are doing what they’ve been asked to do, staying in their bubbles. All that we need to do to capitalise on that is for everyone to test before they get back into the market. That is a massive opportunity that’s staring us in the face.”
In short, as the infamous Chris Hipkins merch reads: spread your legs – not the virus.