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Despite Medical Advances, We're Still Fighting The Stigma Of HIV

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By Patience Nyoni, edited by Alysha Baratta

My story begins in the dark. Although I lived in South Africa, I was in the same position as one in five people living with HIV in Canada: I had the virus and didn't know it. I knew it was possible I had HIV, but I did not want to get tested to confirm it. I wanted to continue living in the realm of denial, wishing my ignorance would make my HIV vanish. Then, when I applied to come to Canada as a government-assisted refugee, I found out testing was compulsory. My fear of HIV was so deep-rooted that I even had a moment of hesitation and thought, "maybe Canada isn't for me after all..." I realized it was time to face my greatest fear. I got tested.

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After coming to Canada in 2007 I was in shock and traumatized by my diagnosis. I was comforted to know that I would have access to healthcare and all the medication necessary to keep this virus at bay. Even with access to care, I saw the Afro-Canadian positive community around me failing to receive the care they need. Refugees face many challenges -- being a newcomer, being alone, dealing with trauma. In addition, the shame of having HIV was profound; merely walking into an HIV clinic caused widespread gossip and shaming within the community.

I started the Afro-Canadian Positive Network of BC to address these issues and have been working in my community for nine years. Still, we lost two dear members from our organization in 2016 from complications of HIV/AIDS. It was not due to a lack of access to medical care. It was not due to a lack of education (one of them had a Master's degree). It was the social repercussions of living with this disease and stigma surrounding it that kept them from living.

Stigma prevents people from getting tested and on the right track to a healthy positive lifestyle.

The HIV virus is no longer a death sentence. Stigma is.

How can it be that in the face of medical advancements, the desire to stay hidden and avoid social shaming overcomes the need to be healthy? We now have empirical knowledge about HIV, so why are we letting shame hold us back? Devoted scientists are doing their part by researching an end to HIV/AIDS -- we must do our part by talking about its existence.

Stigma against people living with HIV causes more than just hurt feelings -- it isolates people and ultimately has serious public health repercussions. In our members' cases, we saw stigma act as a barrier. Stigma prevents people from getting tested and on the right track to a healthy positive lifestyle.

If you're an African, Caribbean, and/or Black Canadian, you are 6 times more likely to obtain HIV than other Canadians. That is why The Canadian HIV/AIDS Black, African and Caribbean Network (CHABAC) is leading the third African, Caribbean, & Black Canadian HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, on February 7th. Please: Start a conversation. Know your health options. End the stigma.

I have come out of the darkness and I show my face -- the real face of a healthy, positive lifestyle. By sharing my story, I hope to end the stigma and bring hope to the hopeless.

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Patience Nyoni is a mother of three and has been living with HIV for 16 years. She is the founder of the Afro-Canadian Positive Network of BC. She serves as a board member for the Pacific AIDS Network and CTAC, and sits on a number of committees across Canada including CHABAC.

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Black, African and Caribbean Network (CHABAC) is a national network of organizations, individuals and other stakeholders who are dedicated to responding to issues related to HIV and AIDS in Canada's African, Caribbean and Black communities.

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