By Executive Director, Tammy C. Yates
Last week, I went to give a lecture at a University in Ontario about the history of HIV and the contribution that Realize has made in this area. As I scanned the young eager faces in the room, for some strange reason, it hit me like a lightning bolt at that very moment that most of the students in the class were not even born during the worst days of the AIDS epidemic in the last 30 years! I asked the group, “How many of you have ever seen the movie ‘Philadelphia’?” and out of a class of just over 40, only 3 hands went up. I then asked, “So who has seen the more recent film ‘Dallas Buyers Club’?” and 5 hands went up. It proved the point that apathy and complacency around knowledge about HIV and specifically the history of the AIDS movement has set in.
HIV, thankfully, is not the death sentence that it was once for those who know their status, have early enough access to adequate care, antiretroviral treatment and the support required to adhere to that treatment. For many in Canada, HIV is now considered to be a manageable chronic health condition that may sometimes lead to episodes of disability for some, but not most.
So why then, are many people still afraid to publicly share their personal stories about living with, or being affected by HIV? A case in point, after the class – as often happens 9 out of 10 times – individuals came up to me on a one to one basis to share that they either live with HIV, or have had a relative/friend who have died of AIDS related causes. For World AIDS Day 2018 (December 1st), the global theme is “Know Your Status”. This will also be an occasion to celebrate the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day – a pioneering global health campaign first initiated by the World Health Organization in 1988.
But “Knowing Your Status” is clearly not enough. There are barriers that dissuade people from taking an HIV test in the first place, such as:
- Lack of perceived risk of acquiring HIV
- Social exclusion and isolation
- Lack of access to services
- Perceived risk of discrimination in employment and the chance to earn a livelihood
- Disability brought on by HIV and some drug treatments
- The uncertainties of living and aging with HIV should you find out that you are positive
- Perceived – and real – risk of criminalization of HIV transmission and exposure due to current Canadian law on this issue.
Addressing these barriers would be a step in the right direction, but normalizing HIV testing as a routine part of integrated healthcare and most importantly, reducing stigma and discrimination faced by those living with or affected by HIV would create a seismic shift to encourage many more people to “Know Their Status”.
As I close, I think of Earl, Andell, Lorna, Christopher, Catherine, Peter and the many, many others who I’ve lost over the past 30 years, but today, I also stand in strength, side by side, with all my current friends/family living with or affected by HIV, who will be sitting in the rocking chair beside me for many years to come!