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Is Education Enough to Fight AIDS?

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World AIDS Day is Saturday. How will you remember and commemorate?

Last year alone, 1.7 million people worldwide died as a result of AIDS-related causes. Their deaths must not be in vain. In their memory let us take a more proactive stance in observing this special day this year.

Brian Lester, Executive Director of Regional HIV/AIDS Connection in London, Canada concurs: "More HIV education is needed in schools and the broader community. However, at the individual level the biggest challenge to disclosing one's status is pervasive stigma. HIV stigma makes disclosure very difficult and keeps people from accessing care, treatment testing and support. "

Good message. End HIV stigma now. But how?

Complacency about AIDS is a major problem and education is still our only vaccine.

But sometimes, somewhat surprisingly, even the educated need educating.

When my friend "Doug" discovered he was HIV-positive a few years ago, in that moment, he became an addition to the statistics -- statistics that claim scores of new HIV cases every day of the year.

Doug's doctor misdiagnosed his illness over a period of months, not suggesting he take the AIDS test until five months after the first indication something was wrong.

Can this actually happen at this late date in AIDS awareness?

Doug privately suspected something but never told me his fears. He would keep me updated on all the tests he was undergoing. He had assumed his doctor had tested him for HIV as one of the myriad of tests he underwent, so he sustained denial as long as possible. And since Doug had told me he had had all the tests, I never once suspected AIDS. That is until he informed he had assumed wrong. The test had not taken place.

We prayed for a miracle. I tried to be as positive as I could for my friend. I even felt guilty for being so naive. I had taken an AIDS volunteer course. I had been a buddy to two men who lived and died with AIDS. I should have known better. Why didn't I see the signs?

In hindsight, I was too close to the situation. If I was in denial, imagine how Doug felt.

I took my friend to the doctor's office where Doug was told, "there's a 50 per cent chance you have the virus." Part of the shock came from the fact Doug had practiced safe sex for years. It couldn't happen to him.

But a review of Doug's recent history led to the discovery of the source of the transmission.

Doug had had dental surgery to remove his teeth. Soon after, his gums were not healing properly so he went without his new plates. During this time he had a short-term relationship.

It was this unusual situation that would change Doug's life forever.

He didn't know he had unhealed wounds in his mouth, and he didn't know his partner was HIV-positive.

Unfortunately there was no comfort in learning these harsh truths.

Hours after a final test came back positive, Doug told me he has had thoughts of suicide.

I recall wanting to be strong for my friend, detached, a pillar of strength -- you know, what we sometimes think is best. Well, I was surprised that when my emotional walls came down, my friend responded positively. Being honest about my feelings freed him to express a myriad of emotions that seemed to change by the minute and understandably so. Whatever I was feeling was beside the point; my friend needed me. Although not a person who hugs freely, Doug's need for a hug was greater than my discomfort in giving it.

Before long, I initiated hugs frequently. Physical contact is that important.

Our conversations became more open, honest, spiritual. No time for whys, just what is. Doug had an awakening of sorts. He reconnected with his family. His friends and co-workers were supportive.

He wants to educate others -- that's why he doesn't mind me sharing his story. He says, "People should never say 'it could never happen to me.' I was careful. I just wasn't educated on all the possibilities. Perhaps even one person could save their life by taking extra precautions after hearing my story."

Lester agrees that sharing Brian's story is important. He adds, "The risk of contracting HIV through oral sex is low unless certain conditions exist."

Yes, education is part of the answer. Would that Doug had heard this message: "Oral sex is not risk free!"

We now know the risk of contracting HIV through oral sex increases if the person performing has any cuts or sores in their mouth, even if they are unnoticeable. These tiny cuts could be caused by disease, dental work, flossing, brushing or even from eating "sharp" foods like chips.

Doug doesn't play the "what-if" game. He's chosen a survival course in which he lives his life one day at a time. He radiates an internal peace I've never seen in him before. He's leaving himself in God's hands.

Doug is right. Education is the answer. But there are still educated people who don't disclose their HIV status to sexual partners, imperfect doctors who err in judgement, friends who ignore painful truths and patients who don't take a more active, informed interest in their health care.

Perhaps it is the disclosure of experiences of people like Doug that turn out to be the best education of all.

For up-to-date information on AIDS related issues, check out these resources:

http://www.cpha.ca/en/portals/hiv/fundamentals/transmission/s04.aspx

http://www.unaids.org/en/

www.hivaidsconnection.ca