By Michael Asiffo
Every year the world comes together on December 1st to commemorate World Aids Day to raise awareness for HIV and AIDS which has affected millions of people globally. However, HIV and AIDS are not a single day issue, they are exist every single day.
According to the WHO, in just 2016 alone, an estimated 36.7 million people live with HIV and about a million people die from an AIDS-related illness. The need for awareness is paramount, therefore VIBE 105 took the opportunity to speak with Gary Lacasse, Executive Director of the Canadian Aids Society.
The following is an interview conducted by VIBE TALKS Contributor Michael Asiffo:
Michael : Can you shed some light on how serious is HIV/AIDS?
Gary: Well it depends where you live and if you are privileged or not. It’s still not a high health priority because there are seven new infections in Canada per day.
Michael: What kind of education is associated with HIV/AIDS?
Gary: Well the issue that we’re living with in 2017 in Canada is there is no awareness. There is no education being done about HIV until you contract HIV because there is no public money going into any awareness funds. We at the Canadian Aids Society, we’re the only organization doing any HIV related awareness on December 1st and that was cut completely by the federal government in 2017. So as you know across the country, we do not have the same level of education or health policies in each province and territory because they are governed in each province and territory. It is the same with sexual education classes with kids and young adults in university, where there is no education about HIV whatsoever or other Sexually Transmitted disease or Blood Borne diseases (STBBIs).
Michael: Let’s play a game of Myth and fact because I think this is where people will get the bulk of their information about HIV and AIDS.
First question: Myth or Fact? people can contract HIV in other ways than just blood or semen?
Gary: Yes it is true. The basic fact is that you cannot get it through kissing, you cannot get it through handshaking or other paths but it depends on the situation. Let’s say you go to the dentist and you had some dental work done, they suggest that you cannot have oral sex for at least three hours. You have to ensure that you do not have any lesions in your mouth or your vagina or your anus to ensure that you do not contract HIV. Also STBBIs are transmitted through the same practices that HIV is transmitted through so you really have to be aware of the different harm reduction strategies that are out there. Educate yourself about your sexual health and take in your own hands to ensure your safety. But we do have some great news about the treatment and being able to take some pills so that you can’t get HIV, even if you’re negative.
Michael: Myth or Fact - The testing is painful?
Gary: Let’s get that myth out of the way. No pun intended, it is just a little prick. That is all it is, it is dry blood testing. It is just like someone with diabetes pricks their finger and does a blood swatch. There are blood draws also but, they use extremely small needles now, even pediatric needles in some places. We strongly suggest that you also get the complete sexually transmitted and blood borne pathogens tested at the same time to ensure that you don’t have Gonorrhea, a dormant case of Chlamydia etc. So get completely tested for everything. Most of the time it is just a swab, urine test or some blood draw or a prick on your finger. So it very easy now but the issue is we don’t have standardized testing in Canada.
Michael: Can you go in depth on that point? How is the testing in Ontario different from, let’s say, Prince Edward Island?
Gary: In P.E.I. there is almost no testing unless you are a university student. Because in the university at Charlottetown, there is an amazing sexual health clinic there. But, if you’re not a student enrolled, you’re not allowed to get tested there. So you have to go elsewhere to get tested but there is a lot of stigma associated with getting tested. Especially in rural areas, you don’t want your cousin doing the test so that they are aware of your status or where they have an STD. But in Toronto, you are really privileged because you have really amazing testing spaces here in Toronto that afford you anonymity and be able to get tested and get you your results. That not the same everywhere else in Canada.
Michael: Are you surprised at the lack of knowledge that university students have with this topic?
Gary: Totally. I’ve been invited to McGill, Concordia and a couple other university across Canada to give speeches around World’s Aids Day and it really amazes me when we go to, let’s say, the Frosh week and we have organizations that go into these parties to distribute condoms.
What always strikes me is when I go to these parties, me being an old guy, is to see the level of disgust and I’m telling you disgust of students when they see condoms being distributed. Then they look at the staff of these organizations like “I don’t need those, I’m not at risk”. Well I have news for you: you may not be at risk now but you don’t know the risk level of your partner or where your partner’s been.
Michael: That leads me to another myth or fact - do condoms save you from having HIV?
Gar: A condom is the only barrier, that is not a pill, which you can use to ensure that you do not get HIV if it does not break. A condom is also the same barrier that protects you from contracting any other STBBI and it’s the only barrier known. But there’s also some great news out there.
Let’s say somebody contracts HIV, we try to get them on medication right away. If we get them on antiretroviral treatments right away and they take them religiously, that will suppress their viral load. What happens in that case is that is that somebody who is living with HIV, who is taking pills and they have an undetectable viral load cannot retransmit HIV anymore. That’s news and that’s fact and that’s our campaign ‘Undetectable Equals Untransmittable’.
Michael: So that is not necessarily the cure but it is a step in the right direction because there is a way to not give partners the disease?
Gary: Yes, but that’s for the privileged few because it is a question of privilege. If you’re living in Toronto or a major urban city and you are working and you have group insurance or you have access to HIV meds through the province then you are privileged but some people do not have that access in Canada.
Michael: Fact or myth - homosexuals are more likely to contract the disease?
Gary: Myth. About 57% of the HIV infected people in Canada are men who have sex with men because by government standards we are are not supposed to say ‘gay’ anymore. It is men who have sex with men because not everyone identifies as gay, bisexual etc. That’s a myth because the rest of the people are heterosexual and we say that about 40% are women so that’s a myth in itself*.
(*Editor’s Note: According to the Canadian Aids Society, Women make up a significant proportion of people living with or risk at HIV/AIDS in Canada. The estimate of 16, 880 females living with HIV (including AIDS) represents 22.4% of the national total.
Michael: We were just talking off air about you being in Toronto on business for the Canadian Aids Society, can you elaborate why?
Gary: We are hosting a meeting here with our provincial and local organizers. We are about ten people meeting to elaborate the national framework of delivering a national HIV testing day for June 27th 2018, which has never been done in Canada before.
In the states, they have June 27th as their national HIV testing date every year. In Canada the federal government are not able to do this because of provincial and territorial health policies that exist in the provinces, so they are not allowed to go into national testing. So we as a community organization decided with our partners and our members across Canada deliver this.
It would be education, it would be awareness and it would bring down stigma to have this national HIV testing day. But we’re going to be elaborating it as more of a sexual health testing day than just HIV. It would be strongly anchored in HIV but we truly believe that the power of sexual education exists only when we talking about the sexual wellbeing of that person in a holistic manner.
Michael: Where can we get more information about HIV and Aids?
Gary: Visit your local clinic or get more information from the Canadian Aids Society.