By Alexandra Few
World AIDS Day is held annually on December 1st aro`und the world. The goal of this day is to raise awareness on the illness and show support for those who live with AIDS as well as HIV.
World AIDS Day was founded in 1988 and was declared as the first global health day by health ministers who met in London, England. They decided upon a day that would highlight the AIDS pandemic, as well as how each nation has the responsibility to ensure universal treatment and support for people living with AIDS and HIV.
The theme for World AIDS Day 2018 is, know your status. According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) 940,000 individuals worldwide died from AIDS-related illnesses last year. Although this number continually drops over the years, the importance of getting checked is still extremely important to ensure treatment is administered if needed.
“In Canada at the end of 2016, 86% of the estimated 63,110 persons living with HIV were diagnosed”. – The Public Health Agency of Canada
Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week is also commemorated from November 29th to December 6th.
According to the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN) during this week Indigenous people across Canada come together to share lessons and to educate on culturally safe approaches to holistic testing, care, and treatment for AIDS. For events happening around Canada, check out their website for more information.
Worlds AIDS Day in Toronto
There are numerous events happening all around Toronto to honour World AIDS Day.
One such event is Voices for World AIDS Day with the 11th annual concert scheduled for December 1st (8:00pm) at Glen Gould Studio, CBC.
Lisa McDonald - Communications Officer, Casey House, describes the event as: “A concert celebrating all who live with HIV. Featuring a range of performers, Toronto’s Voices for World AIDS Day concert supports Casey House, Canada’s only stand-alone HIV/AIDS hospital offering compassionate, innovative impatient and outpatient care”.
Lisa adds: “The concert is free to attend, with a suggested donation of $30…”
Events like this are extremely important, especially to spread awareness on HIV/AIDS. Lisa continues: “HIV is sometimes considered ‘over’, but HIV is not over. Despite medications that help manage the disease, HIV/AIDS continues to be a serious health threat and not everyone has access to the treatment they need. Two to three Ontarians are diagnosed with HIV each day and 1 in 4 gay men in Toronto lives with HIV. While many live well with HIV, Casey House clients experience barriers accessing the health care they deserve. Recognizing World AIDS Day is important to continue bringing attention to the need for ongoing support for those in our community living with HIV”.
For more about the event and how you can donate, click here.
Stigma is unfortunately still prevalent around AIDS and thus it is important to stay informed on what is true and what is not. Below are some of the most common myths that are associated with AIDS and accompanied facts.
MYTH #1- HIV and AIDS are the same thing
This is a common myth because AIDS does stem from HIV, but they are two entirely separate diagnoses. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that weakens your immune system, specifically the CD4 cells that help your body fight off infection. Without treatment, HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells in the body, which makes an individual more likely to get other infections. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body cannot fight off infections and disease. When this occurs, the weakened immune system can cause infections or cancers, and this signals AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) which is the last stage of HIV. For more information on the difference and the various stages, click here
MYTH #2- You can catch HIV/AIDS by being around someone who has it
This is where a lot of the misconceptions around AIDS originates, as many individuals think they can get HIV/AIDS just by being around someone who has the illness. This is certainly not the case, as you cannot get HIV/AIDS by touching someone (HIV cannot survive outside the body), or through sweat, tears, insects, animals, air, water, food and cooking utensils, toilet seats, door handles, musical instruments, kissing, tattoos, or piercings (as long as the needles are disposed of and sterilized).
According to HIV.gov the most common ways people get or transmit HIV is through sexual behaviours and needle or syringe use. Only certain bodily fluids (blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk) can cause HIV to spread from a person who has it, to another person, specifically through mucous membranes.
MYTH #3- Being heterosexual erases any chance of developing HIV
According to 2016 HIV estimates ], 32,762 gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men contracted HIV through sexual behaviour or injection use, making up 51.9% of the HIV population in Canada. However, 20,543 people with HIV status were attributed to heterosexual sexual behaviour and that makes up 32.6% of the population of those with HIV in Canada. 14,520 females have also HIV, which represents 23% of those with HIV in Canada.
As the statistics illustrate, engaging in heterosexual sexual behaviour does not diminish one’s risk of HIV and AIDS. Injection use (sharing needles/syringes with someone with HIV) is also an easy way to develop HIV, and one’s sexual orientation does not play a role in that.
MYTH #4- HIV can be cured if caught early
Although it is important to see a medical professional as soon as you think you may have contracted HIV, there is still unfortunately no cure, regardless of how quickly you start treatment. However, there are treatment options that can keep the virus under control and allow one to stay healthy for an extended period of time. What HIV treatment does is suppress HIV’s ability to make copies within the body and allow the immune system to rebuild itself. Through a variety of medication that needs to be taken daily, HIV can be managed.
If one believes they have been exposed to HIV within 72 hours, there is emergency HIV treatment called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) that is a short course of antiretroviral drugs that stops the exposure of HIV from becoming more serious and life-long.
MYTH #5- There is no need to be tested unless symptoms are present
The importance of getting tested is crucial to determine if one has contracted HIV. During the early stages, about 40-90% of people develop flu-like symptoms within 2-4 weeks after the HIV infection. However, other people do not feel sick at all during this stage, and for some, symptoms of HIV do not appear for 10 or more years. The HIV infection also may not show up on some HIV tests in the early stage, but one is still highly infectious and can still spread it to others. This demonstrates that although one may feel fine, the importance of getting tested is vital.
Dr. Irving Salit, Director of the Immunodeficiency (HIV) Clinic at the Toronto General Hospital, describes the clinic as a “one stop shop for all patients’ needs [to] monitor and treat [and] also do PEP and PREP].” Dr. Salit says that it is important to get tested even though someone may not be displaying symptoms, because “they can pass on HIV if not treated” and the “disease can be become very advanced with bad infections” if not treated early. Dr. Salit describes the treatment process by choosing a “Rx (medial prescription) with the patient and usually starting it right away”. Dr. Salit also says that HIV is “totally treatable” and one can have a “normal life span”.
HIV/AIDS Testing and Care Resources in Toronto
The Hassle Free Clinic located at 65 Gerrard Street East in Toronto, offers a variety of support for those who need to be tested for HIV. Jane Greer –Director of the clinic, says: “… Stigma remains the number one reason, I think, why people are most comfortable with anonymous HIV testing”.
Anonymous HIV tests are available through appointment and are offered with post-test counselling. The rapid on-site test (pricking the finger for blood and receive results in minutes) is what Jane says the clinic has been doing for many years now.
Another resource that is accessible for Canadians is HIV411.ca Alexandra Murphy - Communications Officer, CATIE, the organization that operates HIV411.ca, says: “HIV411.ca/HCV411.ca allows people to find HIV and hepatitis C services where they live or work. From testing to treatment to support, you’ll find all this information on one website. This tool is both for service providers and for people at risk of or living with HIV or hepatitis C”
Alexandra states: “When you connect people to care, you make treatment more accessible… effective treatment can also prevent the transmission of HIV”.
HIV and AIDS are still very much prevalent in Canada. It is vital to ensure that you are informed on what the illness is, so as to reduce the stigma that is in part a result of misinformation. Getting regularly tested and seeking treatment when needed, is an important way in controlling and managing HIV/AIDS. Get involved with the World AIDS Day events in Toronto and show your support.