To commemorate the 30th anniversary of HIV-AIDS, I could spit out impressive statistics on medical advancements, virus containment or life expectancy. Or, I could share more worrisome statistics like according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, between 2005 and 2008 there was a 14 per cent increase in the number of people living with HIV in Canada. Or, how every eight hours, a Canadian contracts HIV.
But would this really make people stop, think and change the way they protect themselves? Do people really grasp the reality of what it feels like to get this life altering disease, to be socially outcasted, to feel helpless — through statistics?
On June 2, the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR) partnered with the Social Research Centre (SRC) and commissioned a survey about Canadians’ attitude towards HIV and AIDS prevention. The study showed that 93 per cent of Canadians believe that they are knowledgeable about HIV and AIDS, but only half of those surveyed said that they believe that condoms help reduce the spread of HIV. Half. What’s more, almost 57 per cent of the people surveyed (that have two or more sexual partners) admitted to not using a condom the last time they had a sexual encounter.
“It is clear that Canadians’ attitudes have shifted in the past 30 years, but this hasn’t necessarily affected behaviour,” said Christopher Bunting, president of CANFAR.
Therefore, it is true that Canadians today are more informed people than they were 30 years ago. It is true that they understand that HIV stands for ‘human immunodeficiency virus,’ which weakens the immune system making people susceptible to a wide range of infections, and that AIDS stands for ‘acquired immunodeficiency syndrome’ and is associated with the degradation of the immune system resulting in one or more infections.
But understanding definitions does not mean people understand what it is like to have and live with HIV. And as made evident in the CANFAR study, it also does not mean that people necessarily practice safe sex. Many people do not realize it could happen, until it happens to them.
Meet Roxanne Silva*. She does not fit the stereotypical profile of someone infected with HIV. She is an average 31-year-old woman, but only last year, she found out that she was HIV-positive. This is her story.
Silva finished her undergraduate degree with a BA, in political science. Right after graduation, she travelled around Europe, like many young people do, to explore and to get inspired. This led to her becoming a humanitarian aid worker and she has since spent eight years working and living in Africa “…every day I felt like I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing with my life,” she said.
Then, Silva fell in love. He was born and raised in Ottawa but they somehow found each other in Uganda with similar backgrounds, doing similar work. “It was the perfect relationship. We understood the demands of each other’s jobs, we could have conversations about home, we could appreciate each other’s driving force to be in the field and to do this work. I was in love,” she said.
After a few months of dating, they decided to move in together and marked this step in their relationship by getting tested for HIV. During this time, they were both working for UN agencies and Silva decided to begin a Masters program in the U.S.
For nine months, she travelled back and forth between the USA and Uganda while her boyfriend had an affair and got infected with HIV.
For Christmas 2008, Silva went back to her home in Uganda and was unknowingly infected with HIV. “It took me a while to figure out that something wasn’t right in our relationship but I had a feeling in my gut. I started piecing clues together and six months after, we broke up,” said Silva.
After the break up, Silva left Uganda and began another mission in another African country. “Life went on as they do for everyone post-break-up. There were new jobs, new countries, new friends, and new men. I had no idea that I was infected.”
In 2010, Silva accepted a position in Iraq. Upon her arrival she learned that the government of Iraq tests all people coming into the country for HIV. So she got tested, and it seemed to be fine. However, months later, she travelled to another part of Iraq and had to be tested again, so she did so without hesitation. This time it was not okay.
Silva described the worst day of her life when after a morning meeting, her boss pulled her aside and announced to her that her HIV test came back positive. He explained that the men standing next to him were here to take her away.
Baffled, Silva was taken to the deportation office. “This all happened in a minute. I was taken to the deportation office and managed to negotiate a three hour stay in order to collect some of my belongings, etc. under the condition that I would voluntarily return within three hours. Otherwise I would be subjected to the Iraqi criminal code,” she said.
“I went back to my office, called a friend in Ottawa to inform her of what was happening, packed a few things, took a few guzzles of gin from the freezer, stared at myself long and hard in the mirror, got a phone call from my head office in the USA to inform me that since I was HIV-positive and could not work in Iraq (the job I was hired to do) that I was now fired, and then went back to the deportation office. And that’s when the nightmare began,” said Silva.
“I was put in jail, stripped of all communication methods and my passport. No one spoke to me in English. I had no food, little water, no toilet facilities and remained in the same clothes for days. The guards only visited me to throw stones at me. I was so scared and in shock. I didn’t know if I would ever get out of there. I didn’t know what would kill me first, and I didn’t know how I could have been infected. I remember thinking ‘this is a mistake.’ Eventually I was deported to Jordan where I was jailed once again. And then sent to the USA where I was detained at the airport. And then, one week later, I arrived in Montreal. And then I cried. I cried for three months.”
In Montreal, Silva confirmed the test results; it was not a mistake, she was HIV-positive. It took Silva a week to tell her family and although they were devastated by the news at first, they were extremely supportive and were willing to become informed and continue to love her unconditionally.
After researching HIV in Montreal “I turned to ACCM [AIDS Community Care Montreal]. I needed help gaining access to resources, health facilities and support. And ACCM supported me as much or as little as I needed at different times. I attacked my own recovery like a full-time job, determined to dig my way out of this awful, diagnosis-induced rut. And ACCM was there every step of the way.”
Silva’s involvement with ACCM presented her with many opportunities such as co-facilitating a support group for people who are HIV-positive, delivering presentations at the centre as well as telling her story on ACCM’s behalf at schools and other venues.
Silva stressed the importance of understanding that everyone who has unprotected sex, even if it is with one person or only happens one time, is at risk of HIV. Therefore, Silva emphasises“Condoms are not optional, they are required. And everyone (both men and women) are responsible for bringing them into the bedroom,” she said. And finally she said to listen to your intuition. “It is your own personal alarm system, your red flag, your opportunity to stop and re-evaluate.”
Silva’s story is one that echoes the struggles of many other HIV-positive people. One that no statistic could ever encompass.
It is true that HIV is a clever virus that adapts and mutates a person’s cellular composition making it difficult for medicines to remain effective. However, the treatment options for HIV have developed rapidly. Antiretroviral drugs help stop the reproduction of the virus inside the body in three locations at the same time, making it extremely difficult for the virus to adapt and replicate. Today, there are a variety of combinations to choose from. As a result of tri-therapy and incredible advancements in HIV research and medicine, people who are HIV-positive are now living and ageing with HIV, they are not dying as quickly of AIDS as they once did.
When the AIDS epidemic began in the early 1980s, it was a death sentence. As the few remaining survivors will tell you, they were often told they had five years to live. Today, due to the development of safe and effective drugs, people who are HIV-positive can lead longer and healthier lives. Though there is no cure for HIV, adherence to a treatment regime that your body responds well to reduces the amount of virus in your body, allowing your immune system to regain strength and ultimately prevent the development of AIDS.
Silva’s final words touched on the stereotypes that come with the idea of having HIV. “Every person who has HIV in Montreal, in Canada, in the worldâ€¦we are all guilty of the exact same thing: we trusted someone. Who in this world or on your campus hasn’t at some point trusted another person? No one. But it is not more complex than that. HIV is not a comment on risky behaviour, it is not a reflection of the kind of person that you are, it is not worthy of judgement. It is simply a consequence of trust.”
* The name was changed due to the personal nature of the article and to respect confidentiality.