Four decades since the start of the HIV pandemic: Then versus now

now over four decades since the start of the HIV health crisis, how is it being handled in Canada today?

During the summer of 1981, a headline from The New York Times warned people about a “rare cancer” found in young, healthy gay men. Nine months later, the first case of this mysterious illness was reported in Canada. This turned out not to be cancer at all but human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, and could infect people of any age, race, and sexual orientation.

In 1983 alone, there were an estimated 3,000 to 7,000 new cases of HIV in Canada. Nearly 40 years later, there were approximately 1,520 new cases of HIV in 2020, and 1,722 new cases in 2021, according to reports by the Government of Canada.

In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) established the 90-90-90 targets to tackle this pandemic. Their aim is to ensure that 90 per cent of people with HIV know their status, 90 per cent of those who know their status are receiving treatment, and 90 per cent  of those who are on treatment have an undetectable viral load. 

Recent research published by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease has found that people with undetectable levels of HIV cannot transmit the virus through sex.

Canada has made significant progress since the beginning of the HIV pandemic. In 2018, 87 per cent of people with HIV knew their infection status, 85 per cent of those who knew their status were taking treatment, and 94 per cent of those taking treatment for HIV achieved viral suppression. 

Despite this progress, Canada still has much to improve on. Montreal did not sign on to the Paris Declaration on Fast-Track Cities Ending the AIDS Epidemic, which put forth a new 95-95-95 target. As a result, HIV/AIDS organizations within the city feel as though Montreal is not doing enough to combat the pandemic. 

Another highly contested issue is Canada’s laws on HIV non-disclosure, which state that an individual’s HIV-positive status must be disclosed to their partner prior to any sexual activity that poses a “realistic possibility of transmission,” or risk being charged with sexual assault. This law has faced significant backlash due to overcriminalization, particularly among marginalized communities. 

Furthermore, many marginalized groups continue to struggle disproportionately compared to the rest of Canada. According to the Ontario HIV Epidemiology and Surveillance Initiative, in 2019, African, Caribbean and Black women represented 61 per cent of new diagnoses among women in Ontario. Out of 169 women, 21 per cent were reported to use injection drugs. 

A cohort study published by the Ontario HIV Treatment Network highlighted that individuals who experienced intimate violence from a partner were up to 50 per cent more likely to contract HIV. 

In 2018, the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange reported that only 78 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada who inject drugs were aware of their HIV status, with 83 per cent of those who knew their status receiving treatment, while only 64 per cent of those on treatment had an undetectable viral load.

Marginalized groups encounter barriers to access to treatment care for multiple reasons: the costs, the types of clinics and services available and the stigmas related to alcohol and drug use, to name a few. 

HIV organizations that provide support services witness this disparity first-hand. Kimberly Wong, the programs development manager at AIDS Community Care Montreal (ACCM), believes community organizations need more funding to help marginalized people living with HIV. 

“There are major shortages of resources and many post-lockdown crises that our sector has to deal with, so having more money to hire skilled workers would help a lot,” she said. 

ACCM provides a wide array of other services to the community. “Currently, we offer rapid HIV testing by appointment,” said Wong. They also offer one-on-one support for those living with HIV or hepatitis C, including referrals to other resources and individual counseling. 

For those interested in volunteering at ACCM, you can see their list of volunteer opportunities here

For more information regarding other support services, such as STI testing available in the Montreal area, including Concordia University, please refer to the list below.

Concordia University 

514-828-2424 ext. 3565

CLSC Metro (next to Sir George Williams campus)

1801 de Maisonneuve West

AIDS Community Care Montreal

2075 Rue Plessis


[email protected]


2055 Mansfield 


[email protected] 



Montreal – Berri-UQAM 1485 Saint-Hubert Street 

Montreal – Crescent 2121 rue Crescent, Suite 2117

Quebec – 2360 Ch Ste-Foy, Suite G031

Sherbrooke – 30 Rue Marchant

[email protected] 

L’Actuel Medical Clinic 

1001 de Maisonneuve Est 


[email protected]


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