Ambassadors

Mark Vermeulen

Mark Vermeulen is executive director of Aidsfonds – Soa Aids Nederland. He has a background in international HIV programming on health and rights for LGBT people, sex workers and people who use drugs.

What is your connection with the theme ‘Sexual diversity and the city’?
Amsterdam has given me the freedom to explore my sexuality and to be who I am. That would not have been possible in the village I grew up in. I think a lot of people who deviate in one way or another can relate to this.

What is your personal experience with STIs and HIV?
In 2008, I was tested positive for HIV. After the initial shock, I realised how lucky I was to get this diagnosis living in a country like the Netherlands. Here, you can live a long, healthy life with HIV. But a lot of people around the world cannot. This inspired me to start working at Aidsfonds.

How relevant is it – in your opinion – to involve communities in our work (in battling STIs and HIV)?
The HIV response has taught us that working with communities is the only way to create an effective response. Professionals often say that they cannot find the communities, but the reality is that the communities often cannot find the professionals. For instance: people are quite capable of deciding whether they need PrEP, but as a health professional, you need to be visible as someone who can prescribe PrEP. You are not being visible when sitting in your office waiting.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in this?
We need to practice community involvement consistently, not just when it fits our own needs. For me, this also means more than just testing and treating. Are we doing enough to address underlying issues such as depression and risky behaviour? I think we could do more.

What do you expect from the congress? What do you hope gatherings like this will bring?
In 2021, it will be forty years since the start of the HIV epidemic in 1981. Most of us grew up not knowing any better than that there was an STI that could kill you. But because of N=N and PrEP, HIV is no longer such an absolute threat for people. This means that we need to look at STI prevention from a different angle. For instance, we should accept that condoms now play a very different role than they did in the past forty years.

Veronica van de Kamp

Veronica van de Kamp is executive producer and CEO of GAM TV, a broadcasting organisation in Amsterdam directed at the African community. Their programmes cover issues such as HIV/AIDS stigma, integration with Dutch society and family matters.

What is your connection with the theme ‘Sexual diversity and the city’?
In the African community, sexual diversity is still a struggle. People don’t feel comfortable opening up about sexuality or sexual diversity. Culturally, they are not used to talking about it, and there is a lot of stigma surrounding HIV. I want to do something about that.

What is your personal experience with STIs and HIV?
We have found a way to make these subjects easier to discuss: by using drama as a tool to bring the message across. People relate to the characters in our films. While discussing what happens to them, they are also talking about themselves. We also gave our audience new words to discuss this. We used ‘No socks, no shoes’ instead of the more direct ‘no condoms, no sex’. People reacted very enthusiastically to this. It’s much easier for our community to talk about socks than about condoms.

How relevant is it – in your opinion – to involve communities in our work (in battling STIs and HIV)?
We need professionals to get the right information, but the community knows the best way to bring the message across. If health information comes from the community itself, people don’t feel that fingers are being pointed at them. The information will be better received. This is necessary because in our community, there is not enough knowledge about STIs and HIV because of stigma. Most people don’t get tested because they are afraid of knowing their status. We need to learn that it’s not so scary and that treatment is available.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in this?
It takes a long time to battle stigma. This has to come from the community itself, so health professionals need to work together with community organisations. There are good projects, but the lack of follow-up is a problem. Projects end and then you lose the connection with the community.

What do you expect from the congress? What do you hope gatherings like this will bring?
I expect that the community will be more involved in the congress.

Jan van Bergen

Jan van Bergen is a general practitioner who also works as programme manager at Soa Aids Nederland on education and quality assurance issues surrounding STI management. He is a professor with special interest in STI in primary care at the Amsterdam University Medical Centre.

What is your connection with the theme ‘Sexual diversity and the city’?
Proper attention for sexual diversity and “urban” sexual health is important, as the city is a high-prevalence area and hotspot for HIV and STIs. Quality care starts with listening. Without talking about sex in an open and non-discriminatory way, there is no way to decide on the proper diagnostics, the best therapy, or tailored counselling for patients. Counselling should go beyond the top-down tyranny of moralistic health promotion.

What is your personal experience with STIs and HIV?
Advocating positive sexual health has always been a common thread during my career. In the eighties, I organised sexual health educational sessions. In the nineties, I was confronted with an expanding STI and HIV epidemic as a district medical officer in Zambia. And I have been a GP for the last twenty years in a multicultural suburb in Amsterdam.

How relevant is it – in your opinion – to involve communities in our work (in battling STIs and HIV)?
Real community involvement is fundamental to successful interventions; it needs to be reflected in their design, implementation and evaluation. I am very proud of the GP Expert Group in Sexual Health – a community in itself. GP’s with additional knowledge on STIs and sexual healthcare have worked together for over 25 years to educate primary care professionals and advocate for our field.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in this?
In many communities, there are dedicated people who want to contribute. But it is difficult to keep them interested and dedicated, especially if their work is voluntary. And there are always drawbacks to cooperation between volunteers with good intentions and specialists – with their expert-opinions, paradigms and ego. Meaningful communication and exchange between researchers, intervention specialists and communities is a major challenge.

What do you expect from the congress? What do you hope gatherings like this will bring?
I hope that it will enhance our 3 C’s: Competence, Communication and Compassion. Communication is a crucial factor in performance and quality of care. It is about being heard, about compassion, and about listening with the heart and the mind. If we only talk about evidence and statistical significance, we forget that life is about emotional significance. Sex is a very fundamental and existential part of that.

Jon Ho

Jonathan Ho is a Malaysian multidisciplinary artist and designer based in Amsterdam. His company CHINTZD. specialises in the development of fetish gear and apparel. One of his projects was the redesign of the darkroom in gay fetish club Church.

What is your connection with the theme ‘Sexual diversity and the city’?
I am very fortunate to live in Amsterdam, a city that is known for its open-minded and tolerant views on sex. This has allowed me to explore and discover many facets of modern sexuality that feed into my creative practice as an artist and designer.

What is your personal experience with STIs and HIV?
When I got my first STI, I experienced emotions ranging from fear and shame to regret and self-pity. As a designer, I am interested in the systems and approaches that can be designed and implemented in a society – in order to not only stop the spread of STIs, but as a way to educate and allow people to have sex in a responsible and informed manner.

How relevant is it – in your opinion – to involve communities in our work (in battling STIs and HIV)?
Community involvement allows us to move beyond the oversimplification of categorical generalisations such as age, gender and sex. It can give us a more empathetic and humane understanding of the sexual practices of the various subcultures and subgroups within our society. Scientific data is crucial, but it is equally important to understand that we are dealing with irrational beings that act on impulse and emotion.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in this?
Scientific research can seem distant and unapproachable to members of the public. Many often forget that there are actual people with good intentions working together to stop the spread of STIs and HIV. The biggest challenge is to figure out how to make research more relatable, approachable and understandable to these communities.

What do you expect from the congress? What do you hope gatherings like this will bring?
I hope that events like this one can make it clear to the general public that there is an international scientific community working together to prevent the spread of STIs and HIV. And that it is important to acknowledge the importance of such research and the impact that it can have on urban spaces and cities around the world.

Gerjanne ter Beest

Gerjanne ter Beest is a nurse practitioner specialising in HIV and STIs at the HIV Treatment Centre of the Rijnstate Hospital in Arnhem, the Netherlands. She is chairperson of the Dutch Society of Nursing Professionals HIV (V&VN VCH).

What is your connection with the theme ‘Sexual diversity and the city’?
In my work I see people from all walks of life, with different sexualities or gender identities. They all have their unique way of dealing with their personal sexuality.

What is your personal experience with STIs and HIV?
We believe that testing for STIs is an essential part of our work at the HIV Treatment Centre. Because we offer accessible STI care, we have lots of opportunities to speak with our patients about their sexual health. We speak with them when they have just heard that they are HIV-positive, which creates a bond of trust. I think it is important to emphasise the importance of enjoying sex, and not to just talk about the risks.

How relevant is it – in your opinion – to involve communities in our work (in battling STIs and HIV)?
Very relevant. Communities give me essential information about how I can support my patients. And for people with HIV, it is very important to get peer support. I always try to convince my patients to join a support group. If they do, they always benefit greatly from it.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in this?
I think there are three major challenges when it comes to working with communities. First, for some communities it is very hard to talk freely about sexuality. For immigrants in the Netherlands, it is much harder to talk about their sexuality – there’s a lot of shame. They therefore often shy away from peer support groups.
Second, there’s often a lack of knowledge among professionals about what communities are doing and where they can be found. There are lots of community projects that we simply don’t know about.

And then there are the GP’s and other health professionals who don’t always dare to ask about sex and sexuality. I still hear about GP’s who refuse to prescribe PrEP to their patients.

What do you expect from the congress? What do you hope gatherings like this will bring?
I’m always looking for practical tips to better help my clients. I hope we will hear from various communities about their needs when it comes to quality HIV healthcare.

Nassiri Belaraja

Nassiri Belaraj was the driving force behind the third Moroccan boat at the Amsterdam Gay Pride in 2014. He is the founder of Pink Marrakech, an organisation that helps bicultural LGBT people to come to terms with themselves.

What is your connection with the theme ‘Sexual diversity and the city’?
I am a gay man of Moroccan origin. I was born and raised in Gorinchem, a small town in the Netherlands where there is a lot of social control. Especially in the Dutch-Moroccan community everybody was keeping an eye on each other. I did not feel free to be myself there. I have spent about 25 years coming to terms with who I am. During this process, I had nowhere to go in terms of talking with likeminded people. That is why I founded Pink Marrakech; to offer a platform for Dutch-Moroccan LGBT people, so that they don’t have to struggle on their own. Pink Marrakech offers education, events and empowerment to younger generations.

What is your personal experience with STIs and HIV?
I’m on PrEP and I get tested for STIs and HIV every three months. I am thankful to live in the Netherlands, where people can get tested and get proper healthcare if they test positive. In countries like Morocco people are much worse off.

How relevant is it – in your opinion – to involve communities in our work (in battling STIs and HIV)?
You can learn from first-hand experiences and you can make sure the community feels heard. It’s important to learn to speak the same language. This means understanding cultural differences, but also literally communicating in a different language. The Dutch sexual health services could do a lot of good work if they offered information in Arabic. Interpreters or organisations that could act as a kind of mediator between healthcare professionals and communities could help.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in this?
There is a lot of shame and taboo surrounding sex, STIs and HIV. I think it is important that education in schools becomes mandatory.

What do you expect from the congress? What do you hope gatherings like this will bring?
I hope that there will be a lot of diversity. I know it takes more effort to include some communities, but I do expect that it will be done. And I hope that we can take new steps towards less HIV and STI infections by learning from and understanding each other.

Henry de Vries

Henry de Vries is a dermatologist and Professor of skin infections at the University of Amsterdam. He also works at the Public Health Service (GGD Amsterdam). He is president of the STI & HIV 2021 World Congress.

What is your connection with the theme ‘Sexual diversity and the city’?
Being gay is one of the reasons why I live here in Amsterdam. In a lot of big cities, people with different sexual preferences or different gender identities can find like-minded people and live freely.

What is your personal experience with STIs and HIV?
I started working in the STI and HIV field in 1998, as a volunteer at the weekend STI clinic for gay men in Amsterdam. This was an LGBT community project. With AIDS still being a deadly disease for many, the solidarity in those days was inspiring.
Even though funds are being cut and the field gets less attention than it deserves, I still see a similar solidarity in our scientific community. Although there is healthy competition, there is the notion that we need to work together. This is much less so in many highly competitive scientific fields.

How relevant is it – in your opinion – to involve communities in our work (in battling STIs and HIV)?
The HIV/AIDS epidemic has revolutionised patient involvement in treatment, care and research. Artists have contributed a lot to destigmatising HIV and AIDS. More than sixty percent of people living with HIV have access to medication. This success is the direct result of strong and lasting patient advocacy. I remember the images of community protesters on TV forming picket lines during the first HIV conferences. As a result, patient communities nowadays have their own central position at HIV conferences. I hope we can stimulate similar community involvement in the broader STI field, starting in Amsterdam in 2021!

What do you think is the biggest challenge in this?
Getting community members to your conferences is costly. The coronavirus epidemic makes it even more difficult, but also creates opportunities. With virtual communication, we hope to involve many more people. 

What do you expect from the congress? What do you hope gatherings like this will bring?
I’m hoping for a lot of high-level scientific content, just like in previous editions. We aim to organise a hybrid conference with a large virtual component, intertwined with the classical physical event. I also hope for a great community contribution and the involvement of local artists to bring their unique view to the international STI and HIV audience.

Dinah Bons

Dinah Bons is co-chairperson and Strategic advisor for Trans United Europe/BPOC Trans organization. She advises policymakers on transgender health and legislation issues and human rights. She is considered a community leader for trans people of colour.

What is your connection with the theme ‘Sexual diversity and the city’?
In the nineties, when Amsterdam was the gay capital of the world, people of colour were in the front line as performers, dancers and drag queens. They could show this side of themselves because they had nothing to lose. They were very flamboyant and visible in society. I was one of them. I think we now experience the benefits of their pioneering work in gender diversity.

What is your personal experience with STIs and HIV?
After my transition I found that all of a sudden, I had lost access to all the prevention programmes that had been available to me as a gay man. Luckily, I was already on HIV medication, but a lot of trans women have a high risk of contracting HIV. I contacted the local health centre and they have done a lot to make their services accessible to trans people too.

How relevant is it – in your opinion – to involve communities in our work (in battling STIs and HIV)?
In order to meet the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets, we have to reach communities that were not adequately reached before. People who need to be tested for HIV might have other problems that are more important to them, and might not feel safe in health institutions. For instance, Trans United has helped some trans people to get tested, while they came to us for help of a different nature.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in this?
For a long time, some groups – mainly white men – have been in the forefront of prevention programmes. They need to make room for other groups that are in greater need of these programmes. You need a truly community-driven approach to reach the groups that are most difficult to find.

What do you expect from the congress? What do you hope gatherings like this will bring?
I hope that the mindset needed for a truly community-driven approach can take root among the participants. And I hope that together, we can convince legislators that we need to invest in this approach in order to meet the 90-90-90 targets.