Thirty-five years after the first World AIDS Day, medical advances have revolutionized HIV treatment, allowing people to live longer lives without symptoms. Additionally, self-testing kits are readily available and vaccine research is underway.
But public attitudes toward HIV/AIDS have not progressed as much as medical advances, said Khaled Salam, executive director of the Ottawa AIDS Commission.
“The only battle we are still fighting today is the issue of stigma.”
Research shows that many Canadians don’t feel comfortable talking about HIV. According to a Public Health Agency of Canada poll, nearly a quarter of Canadians would not feel comfortable wearing a sweater once worn by someone with HIV, and 49 per cent of Canadians would not feel comfortable wearing a sweater once worn by someone with HIV. He said he was uncomfortable using the same restaurant glass. Same with HIV/AIDS.
In an effort to start a conversation about HIV/AIDS, the Ottawa AIDS Commission teamed up with ViiV, a pharmaceutical company specializing in HIV treatment and research, to offer Ottawa residents clothing made from clothes made by people living with HIV. People were asked to tie red ribbons. . The event, held outside the National Arts Center, was one of several to commemorate World AIDS Day.
“We asked people living with HIV in Ottawa to donate their old red clothes,” Salam said. The clothing was cut into strips, and volunteers asked people outside the NAC if they could take ribbons made from red clothing and tie them to the fence.
Salam said the Ribbons of Acceptance event aims to dispel misconceptions about HIV and get people talking.
Some continued walking despite being accosted, but many tied ribbons and agreed to talk about the issue.
“We’ve had a great response,” Salam said. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of educating people. People tend to be afraid of what they don’t know. Sometimes (conversations) can be eye-opening.”
Salam said science shows that HIV cannot be transmitted by touching, hugging, kissing, living with an HIV-infected person, or sharing eating utensils or toilet seats. He said it was obvious. HIV is transmitted sexually and can be spread by sharing medical equipment. It can also be passed from mother to child through breast milk.
Many people on treatment have such low viral loads that they cannot transmit HIV under any circumstances, and “undetectable equals not transmittable,” he said.
Despite this, he said there are still many people who believe they can be infected through clothing or other means.
Marvelous Muchenje of Toronto, who is originally from Zimbabwe, has been living with HIV since 1995 and said people like her still experience stigma.
“Despite all the money and resources being put into HIV education, stigma still exists. People have misconceptions about what HIV is.”
Among other things, she said, people experience stigma in the health care system and may report their HIV-positive status to broadcast it in front of others.
Muchenje, an HIV advocate, said when she was first diagnosed, she thought she only had a few months to live. “I’m thriving now.”
HIV/AIDS advocates worry that stigma can prevent people from getting testing and treatment. Salam said an estimated 11 per cent of people infected with HIV in Canada remain undiagnosed.
Across the country, 63,000 Canadians are living with HIV. Approximately 4,000 people live in Ottawa.
Salam said Canada is moving closer to the UNAIDS goal of having 95 per cent of people diagnosed, 95 per cent of those diagnosed receiving treatment and 95 per cent of those treated achieving viral load suppression as a result of treatment. He said there was. But to reach the 2030 goal, more people need to be diagnosed.
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