Marking World AIDS Day
On December 1st each year, we mark World AIDS Day to remember people lost to AIDS related diseases and to raise awareness about HIV prevention and treatment. Globally in 2019 there were 38 million people living with HIV, the infection that leads to AIDS. As Violence Prevention Grey Bruce marks World AIDS Day in our 16 Days of Activism article series, we encourage everyone in our communities to look past the stereotypes surrounding HIV and AIDS, to recognize that they impact people in our communities, and to take action to raise awareness and work towards prevention.
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus interferes with the body’s immune responses and gradually creates a deficiency in the immune system. That deficiency makes people living with HIV more likely to get sick with other diseases. AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. It describes the variety of symptoms and infections that result from the immunodeficiency caused by late stages of an HIV infection.
AIDS first gained North American attention in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Little was known about the disease at the time but it was associated with the gay community. Homophobia slowed official responses to the growing epidemic. During that time misinformation about the virus and who could be infected amplified stigma surrounding the gay community. Initial pushes for research and treatment were largely the result of activism and advocacy by the LGBTQ+ community. In reality, anyone can be infected with HIV but the stigma surrounding the virus persists today and is a barrier to people accessing services.
HIV can be spread through bodily fluids. According to UNAIDS.org, “HIV is transmitted through penetrative (anal or vaginal) sex, blood transfusion, the sharing of contaminated needles in health-care settings and drug injection and between mother and infant during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding”.
The Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange (CATIE) reports that as of 2016, there were an estimated 63,110 Canadians with HIV. Of those people, 51.9% are gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, 32.6% are people who engage in heterosexual sex, and 17.4% were people who use injection drugs. In Canada, 23% of people with HIV are women. The myths that persist around HIV suggest that it only impacts gay men and that rural areas are immune. Neither of these things is true. Locally, the Grey Bruce Public Health Unit reports that over the last ten years an average of three people per year are diagnosed with HIV in our area.
HIV is here. It is in Canada and it is in Grey Bruce but contracting HIV is not a death sentence. The last 30 years have seen incredible advances in HIV and AIDS treatments. It is possible for people with HIV to live long lives if they have access to healthcare and the appropriate supporting medication. The first step in accessing treatment is to know your HIV status. An estimated 14% of people with HIV in Canada don’t know their status. HIV testing is accurate and is free to access through public health units and healthcare providers. HIV transmission is also preventable by making sure you know your own HIV status and the status of your sexual partner(s), the consistent and correct use of condoms, only engaging in sex when a positive partner has an undetectable viral load, pre-exposure prophylaxis taken by people who are not infected with HIV, and avoiding sharing needles and sharps.
Healthcare and public health responses are essential but everyone in our communities can take steps to improve the lives of people living with HIV by breaking down the stigma surrounding the disease. Despite the global and devastating impact of HIV/AIDS, they are still treated as a joke by too many people. From punchlines in TV and movies to school yard jokes, the stigma and shame surrounding HIV/AIDS is still too prevalent. We can all challenge the stigma and misinformation that surround the disease but to do that we need to be informed. CATIE.ca is a reputable and thorough source for information about HIV/AIDS and you can also access information through the local public health unit. You can also normalize routine testing for HIV and all sexually transmitted infections.
Violence Prevention Grey Bruce posted an anonymous survey last week to ask people what they want their community to know or better understand about HIV/AIDS. Respondents included health care providers, HIV positive people, and friends of people living with HIV.
Three take away messages were:
- “People are truly living with HIV/AIDS”
- “That it’s preventable”
- “I got it and you can too”
As we mark World AIDS Day in 2020, we share a greater understanding of the impact of pandemics on communities. HIV/AIDS have been with us longer than COVID-19 but both diseases can benefit from the same basic actions on the part of every one of us: learning about the infection, taking the recommended precautions to avoid transmission, and showing compassion to those impacted by the disease. HIV can impact anyone with blood meaning that we are truly all in this together.
The Owen Sound chapter of PFLAG Canada is encouraging everyone to light a candle of remembrance in their window at 7pm on December 1st for World AIDS Day. For more information or to participate, visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/PFLAGCanadaOwenSound