December 1st is World AIDS Day and also HIV and AIDS Awareness Day in Canada. Participants take action through various activities to spread the message of being safe, protecting yourself against the HIV virus, educating individuals and raising funds to find a cure for HIV and AIDS. There has always been an enormous amount of fear and stigma surrounding this disease. World AIDS Day is trying to change this perception.
HIV is short for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is believed that the disease originally manifested in non-human primates and was later transferred to humans. In the eighties, as it became an epidemic, the public and medical professionals struggled to understand it and find a cure. Contracting HIV, which in most cases would eventually progress into AIDS, was a death sentence at that time. The week surrounding AIDS Awareness Day makes us stop and reflect on the ongoing battle we’ve had with this disease and what we can do to help.
With advances in drug therapies, HIV is now more of a chronic disease and no longer a death sentence, but it is still a major issue in Canada. The number of people in Canada living with HIV is increasing. An estimated 71,300 Canadians were living with HIV at the end of 2011. Shockingly, one quarter of people living with HIV in Canada are unaware that they have the disease. In 2010, 26% of all HIV positive tests reported in Canada were in the 15 to 29 age group. A recent worldwide study found that there are common misconceptions among 60% of young people about the ways in which the disease can be transmitted. Many believe that the current drug therapies used to treat HIV and slow down its progression into AIDS will act as a safety net when it comes to protection from sexual transmission. This is not the case.
While it is true that modern treatments have made significant advances in this area, HIV still poses a threat. Individuals who are HIV positive and taking drugs to control it are still part of a treatment process that is continually being evaluated since there is still no cure. The current drugs used to combat HIV can also take a toll on the patient’s immune system and may have negative side effects after taking them for several years. Patients may develop complications similar to people much older. If the disease does progress, they have more of a chance of contracting infections and illnesses and certain types of cancer that are common in people with a weakened immune system. Young people need to realize that although there are medications out there to help with the disease, HIV still poses a danger and is very easily preventable.
So what are we doing about HIV and AIDS? Many young people are taking a stand to stop the spread of HIV by promoting awareness of the disease and preventive measures such as safe sex. As a part of World AIDS Day, volunteers went out into their communities in Toronto and set up booths at busy subway stations. They reached out to Toronto citizens commuting via TTC and spread awareness of HIV and AIDS by handing out red ribbons and condoms. They also raised funds through donations for the volunteer-based organizations that are currently registered and working in Canada. These organizations focus on encouraging and empowering youth by giving them the tools they need to help in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
It is also important to look at the lives of those young people who are living with HIV and AIDS. Although sadly there is still a stigma associated with it, it is much less than what it used to be. This is not a reason to be indifferent. It is important for everyone affected by this disease that we continue to increase awareness, advocate for safe sex and continue to keep HIV and AIDS in the social conscience. We need government, the medical profession and pharmaceutical companies to continue to search for a cure. While we may have drugs and a medical system in place to cope with HIV, many countries in Africa do not. This is another reason why advancing HIV and AIDS research should remain a priority for governments around the world. Continued advocacy for finding a cure, as well as making information easily available, are things we can do right now to be in control. Always an optimist, I believe we will see a cure for HIV and AIDS in our lifetime.