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Are We Making Progress In The Fight Against HIV/AIDS In Canada's African, Caribbean And Black Communities?

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By Shannon Ryan, Executive Director of the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP) and Robert Bardston, HIV activist

Sunday, February 7th marks the second annual African, Caribbean and Black Canadian HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. The Canadian HIV/AIDS Black, African and Caribbean Network (CHABAC) and its partners started this day because we need to raise awareness of HIV, promote HIV prevention, and address HIV-related stigma and homophobia in Canada's African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) communities. On this day we are asking people to stop and reflect on the impact of HIV in Canada's ACB community as well as to fight the silence and denial that so many in our community want to maintain.

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The good news is that there have been some real advances in addressing HIV and we now have more tools than ever to prevent, diagnose and treat. Research evidence tell us that condoms and other emerging prevention technologies such as pre-exposure phophylaxis (PrEP -- when an HIV-negative person takes anti-HIV drugs to reduce their risk of becoming infected) and treatment as prevention (TASP -- when an HIV positive person uses anti-HIV drugs to significantly decrease the risk of HIV transmission to a negative partner) are incredibly effective in preventing new HIV infections.

We are also living in a time when there are especially effective treatments that, when accessible, largely ensure a long life for people diagnosed with HIV. We know that many Black Canadians diagnosed with HIV are living relatively healthy lives when compared with other HIV positive Canadians. For instance, in Ontario the health outcomes for Black people receiving HIV treatment are largely in line with the health outcomes for others receiving the same treatments. This suggests that we are doing well in the fight to treat and support members of our community who are living with HIV. This also means that Black Canadians living with HIV are engaged in their care and that those that have been diagnosed are on HIV treatment.

It's clear that we've made progress, but not in all areas. At this time, Black Canadians are many times more likely to acquire HIV than other Canadians and while we make up about 2 per cent of the population, we represent about 17 per cent of the newly diagnosed. Black women are increasingly vulnerable to HIV and are over represented among all women living with HIV. In Ontario they represent about 60 per cent of all women living with HIV. Like other gay men, Black gay men continue to be at especially high risk for HIV and about 1 in 5 are living with HIV. We also struggle to ensure that the most vulnerable in our community such as newcomers, trans people, people who use substances and youth are engaged in prevention, are diagnosed and have access to life saving treatments.

The vulnerability of Black Canadians to HIV is highly complex and requires a better focus on prevention, education, harm reduction and testing. Perhaps our biggest challenge is the high and especially persistent levels of HIV stigma and homophobia in our communities. These attitudes severely limit our success in engaging Canada's Black communities in a dialogue about HIV, and get in the way of our HIV prevention, testing and treatment efforts.

This is what our awareness day is all about. We want to both celebrate our successes and make an objective assessment of where our community is at in this fight to engage people in HIV prevention, encourage people to get tested and on treatment, build awareness and reduce stigma.

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Shannon Ryan is the Executive Director of the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP). Black CAP is a charitable organization focused on reducing the spread of HIV infection within Toronto's Black, African and Caribbean communities and enhancing the quality of life of Black people living with or affected by HIV or AIDS. Shannon is also co-Chair of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Black, African and Caribbean Network (CHABAC).

Robert Bardston has worked in social advocacy for many years (Gay Peer Counselling; Concerts in Support of Child Victims of Cambodia; Schizophrenia Aid; HIV/AIDS Advocacy) and has held board member posts in various organizations for these causes. Retirement has allowed him to concentrate full-time on his activist interests, principally HIV/AIDS advocacy for the over-50-year-olds and the Canadian African, Caribbean and Black community and the Canadian Positive People Network. His presentations entitled "Music and Musings of a 27-Year Survivor" and "The New Age for the Aging," were presented at the 2012 and 2014 AIDS International Conferences. Robert is co-Chair of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Black, African and Caribbean Network (CHABAC).