HIV in the Hunter

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From the mid 1980s to the 2000s, the Hunter region was hit by the life-challenging HIV/AIDS epidemic. A small but dedicated community emerged to meet the crisis with a powerful and compassionate response.

The HIV/AIDS crisis targeted people already at risk, in particular gay men, haemophiliacs and intravenous drug users. A devoted team of doctors and nurses, nuns and mums, families and friends, volunteers and carers of all kinds, reached out to protect those who struggled.

HIV/AIDS is still a disease, which untreated, is devastating to the immune system. At the time, it was so feared and misunderstood that sufferers not only endured sickness and death but shame and stigma as well.

Before lifesaving treatments and combination therapies made it a manageable disease, HIV/AIDS was considered terminal and those that cared for the victims were in a fight for a loved one’s life. Royal Newcastle Hospital provided ground-breaking medical care while unique institutions like MacKillop House provided respite between the hospital and the home.

A regional office for the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON) was set up to deal with the unique demands of people with HIV/AIDS in Newcastle and the Hunter. Organisations like Community Support Network (CSN) took up the everyday needs of their clients, including emotional support. A community drop-in centre called Karumah provided a sanctuary and social hub, a place of understanding, education and fellowship.

The crisis appears to have been a catalyst in the LGBTIQ community, encouraging a strong network of social groups while a monthly newspaper called Preference covered the scene that included venues like the Gateway Hotel, now the Newcastle, and the Wickham Park Hotel.

HIV/AIDS was an unprecedented and unexpected epidemic that impacted an often fragile and diverse community, but it was fought by a coalition of caregivers who stepped up during this historic crisis, one that still is current in many lives.

These are just a few of their memories.

The photographs in these stories are from a collection donated by Wez Saunders. The collection is held by the University of Newcastle Library Cultural Collections. These stories are presented in proud partnership with the Hunter Ranbow History Group.

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View the stories below.

Pauline Dobson

Pauline Dobson

Sister Annie Laurie

Sister Annie Laurie

Wez Saunders

Wez Saunders

Robert Pearson

Robert Pearson