A Cut Above the Rest: Innovative Barbershop Program Educates Indigenous Men About HIV

Stories@Gilead - July 20, 2023 - 2 min read

How do you educate people about difficult-to-talk-about, yet incredibly important, health topics? And which settings are ideal for such conversations? Those were the questions plaguing Cairns Sexual Health Service, a clinic in northern Australia, whose providers sought to reach members of the Indigenous community in their area.

The Indigenous community in Cairns has historically been disproportionally affected by HIV. In recent years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males have been diagnosed at a rate of almost three times that of their non-Indigenous peers. Complicating matters is the stigma around HIV and the community’s historical mistrust of healthcare professionals.

“If we just sit back and wait for the young men to come, they don’t arrive,” says Dr. Darren Russell, Program Director at the Cairns Sexual Health Service. “So we can’t teach them about sexual health and HIV prevention, and we can’t test them.”

Partnering with Fresh Start Academy
The team ultimately found the solution by connecting with Fresh Start Academy, a non-profit dedicated to teaching the barbering trade to young men. Recognizing that a barbershop could provide the type of safe environment needed to educate patrons about sexual health, the Cairns clinic collaborated with the organization to involve young local barbers in the HIV prevention effort.

“It was a lightbulb moment,” says Rob Hodge, founder of the academy. “We realized this could go a long way in normalizing the HIV conversation and demonstrating how straightforward the testing process is.”

Rob reached out to Josh Anderson, the owner of the local Cartel Collective barbershop, to structure the HIV education curriculum. As part of the program, young men get free haircuts and engage in conversations about sexual health. As Darren puts it, “They're in the chair for a while. They talk to the barber. The barber talks to them.” Healthcare workers, meanwhile, are nearby to answer questions and offer resource referrals.

Gilead provided a grant for the innovative partnership as part of its overall efforts to advance health equity and reduce stigma and disparities in communities of greatest need. The company has a long tradition of funding innovative programs and partnering with organizations that aim to meet people where they are.

“When Dr. Russell contacted me and described the work, we both knew that Gilead was the right organization to support the initiative,” says Damien Fagan, Associate Director, Medical Affairs, HIV, Australia. “The program’s success shows that working together with communities disproportionately impacted by HIV is a crucial step to helping end the epidemic.”

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