Altering the face of AIDS in Canada

Looking at current news stories that deal with the AIDS epidemic, one would be hard-pressed to deny the perilous threat faced in Africa by those who are uneducated and unprotected. According to statistics, however, the threat is not solely an African one, but exists across various social demographics here in Canada, and is rising among women.

“These days people identify AIDS as an African disease, but you still need to protect yourselves; just look at the thousands of Canadians living with HIV,” says Ken Monteith, executive director of Aids Community Care Montreal (ACCM).

At the end of 2003, there were an estimated 56 thousand people living with AIDS/HIV in Canada. British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec accounted for 95 per cent of the nation’s AIDS diagnoses. Even more shocking is that over one third of Quebecers living with HIV do not even know they are infected with the virus.

Surprisingly, women represent the fastest growing proportion in AIDS cases in this country.

Prior to 1994, women in the 15-29 age group only represented 9.8 per cent of all AIDS diagnoses. Fast-forward ten years, and this amount has now reached 41 per cent.

This is not only a serious AIDS issue, but an important social one as well.

“Women tend to be the victims because when it comes down to power and relationships, some women have less control over issues like condom use,”says Monteith.

Both Bernard Rochon, a psychotherapist who has lost over 20 friends to the AIDS virus, and Monteith agree that women aged 18-29 are more susceptible to the AIDS virus, especially in physically or emotionally abusive relationships.

“People want to ignore, deny, and they want so much to be in love, but at what cost?” questioned Rochon.

Fortunately, over the last 10 years, the proportion of reported AIDS cases involving homosexual men fell from 74 per cent in 1993, to 35 per cent in 2003.

“The gay population is more cautious and open about AIDS, and this is demonstrated in the stability of AIDS within the gay community,” says Rochon.

Despite all the media exposure, there still remains a certain denial and anxiety around AIDS. Concerning the scare of last summer, where patients of an HIV positive surgeon were recalled, Monteith added, “Just look at what happened last year at the St. Justine hospital. Obviously, people are not that comfortable with the issue yet.”

To promote more understanding of the illness, the ACCM is striving to reduce the general public’s common anxiety around AIDS and HIV-positive patients. According to the organization, “raising HIV/AIDS awareness is not simply about promoting safer sex, but addressing larger issues such as sexuality, identity, and discrimination.”

The ACCM, alongside other AIDS/HIV organizations, are not only trying to guide Canadians towards more prudent decision making, but are ultimately trying to draw closer attention towards AIDS and the lack of knowledge thereof.

Simply put, HIV is the virus that attacks the body’s immune system and causes AIDS. As of 1996, new medications and treatments help elongate the life span of an AIDS patient, by giving the body a chance to catch up with itself. Unfortunately, these treatments can have debilitating and serious side effects. They can also be quite expensive,costing up to $15 hundred a month if the patient is not covered by a group or public insurance plan.

“Not only are there side effects, but it’s a virus that transforms. If I have it and I use a certain medication and then I transmit the virus to you, you become immune to the medication I was using,” explains Rochon.

The number of annual diagnoses peaked in the mid-1990s and has since declined, most probably due to the use of anti-retrovirals and improved visibility of the virus through the media.

Since the beginning of the epidemic in the early 1980s, the highest level of reported AIDS cases are in men aged 35-39. This statistic has led the general public to categorize the virus into age groups.

“Our youth today think that they are not in danger because they don’t fit into that 35-39 age category,” says Rochon. “They don’t realize that there are AIDS patients from every level of society- straight, gay, bisexuals, lawyers, prostitutes.”

The ACCM is trying to change this perception by offering structured support groups, a Drop-In Resource Center and a number of other practical services. They tend to focus on high school students,visible minority students, queer youth, people living with HIV/AIDS and women.

One of the events organized by the Drop-In Resource Center, is the “Positive Mingle”, an event designed to bring together HIV-positive and HIV-friendly individuals in an attempt to reduce the level of anxiety around AIDS patients. Over the last few years, the proportion of new clients visiting the center after being diagnosed has increased dramatically.

Unfortunately, there are still a number of Canadians leading their sex lives with a blind eye.

“People are not rational about their sex lives. They feel like they are invulnerable, they think that it only happens to someone else,” says Monteith.

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