The vulnerability of Black Canadians to HIV is highly complex and requires a better focus on prevention, education, harm reduction and testing. 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.
High profile disclosures of HIV status, like Charlie Sheen's, remind us of just how far we've come in treating HIV in the past 30 years. HIV is now a chronic disease like diabetes, heart disease or emphysema. However, there are still questions -- such as can people with HIV really live normal, healthy lives?
Many of us think of HIV/AIDS as an issue affecting other countries. But an HIV epidemic in Canada? An estimated 75,500 Canadians are living with HIV, with seven new infections occurring every day. While these numbers are concerning, Canada's overall rate of new infections is still lower than the global average. What these numbers don't show, however, is that HIV has reached epidemic levels in key populations across the country.
Women living with HIV must contend not only with the possibility of rejection, shame, or violence if they disclose, but also with the fear of criminalization. The law provides abusers with another tool for blackmail and further violence, even in cases where a woman disclosed. All the partner has to do is claim she didn't. It's important to generate strategies, such as electronic or paper documentation of disclosure, to protect women living with HIV from harassment, blackmail, abuse, criminal charges, and prosecution, all of which are fueled by the law. They need ways to look out for themselves physically, emotionally, and legally.
Thato knew the risks of unprotected sex in Lesotho, a small mountainous kingdom landlocked by South Africa, a country baring the title of the world's second highest prevalence of HIV. She always used condoms, until that night. She watched as the nurse pricked her finger and the blood spilled onto the HIV test strip. She waited the painful 10 minutes it takes for the the strip to reveal one red line for HIV-negative and two for HIV-positive. The reality of her status hit her and she could no longer speak. Her words, "I am positive," seemed to hang in the space and time.
I was born on May 21st 1993 with H.I.V. In my world this was the scariest thing imaginable. Not the actual virus. I was fortunate enough to learn I could physically live a long relatively healthy life. The stigma has kept me forever afraid. But my disclosure saved my life. That's not the case for everybody and I think it's important we all have a choice. Whatever choice that is, let yourself be happy. Let yourself feel no shame. I am not living with H.I.V, H.I.V is living with me.
The fact that there are still approximately 2 million people around the world who receive an HIV-positive diagnosis each year only accentuates how important it is to scale-up proven combination prevention approaches. Equally important is the scale-up of investments to find a safe, effective and affordable vaccine and multi-purpose prevention technologies.
HIV infection is decidedly no longer a death sentence, and no longer a major inhibitor of quality of life. HIV-positive people can live long and healthy lives. For those with access to care, some sex educators now talk about HIV infection as more of a nuisance to be managed than than a life-altering diagnosis.
UNAIDS has embraced the ambitious goal of ending the AIDS by 2030, and this has now been formally endorsed within the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals agenda. On World AIDS Day, UNAIDS will be calling for the world to achieve: "Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths."
Mandatory minimum sentences for possessing drugs for personal use do not make Canadians safer. They will not improve the health of our economy, the safety of our streets, or the well-being of communities throughout Canada. The inevitable overcrowding of Canadian prisons will not only increase tension and conflict in prisons, but also cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
"Where is Canada?" In Turkey and Jordan recently, this was the question we heard over and over, from Syrian refugees themselves, crisis intervention workers, medical professionals, human rights activists and others dedicated to helping Syrians.To friends and family, I referred to my time in the region as a tour of shame, as a Canadian. There was a clear perception among the people we spoke with that Canada preferred Christian asylum seekers, and this explained the delays and inaction. As the now-infamous photo of Alan Kurdi reminds us, there is an immediate need for Canada to show leadership in developing a concrete solution.
So, what can we do? We have seen tremendous success in other countries: setting clear goals and targets has been key to slowing the HIV epidemic and beginning to envision how we might end this ongoing public health crisis. The goals set by the global community are attainable -- science is on our side. What's needed is good policies and programs, taken to scale.
As the proliferation of online escort services -- gay and straight alike -- suggests, Americans engage in escort services in considerable numbers. Moralism aside, what's the actual harm? We reviewed the available scientific evidence on HIV, other health issues, violence and human rights among sex workers, including among male sex workers -- and gained invaluable insights into the power of decriminalization to reduce harm.
As a result of the stigma around HIV, many folks feel shame and judgment about how they got HIV and don't want others finding out. We believe that isolation is alleviated by networks of support, by the opportunity to create shared experiences with other people, by the opportunity to be true to who you are without fear.
The reality is that out of all Canadians living with HIV, more than one in four don't know they are living with it. And for those of us working with African, Caribbean and Black communities in Canada, it doesn't surprise us to learn that Joseph is a Black man. People from African, Caribbean and Black communities in Canada are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS.
Canada has an extensive network of healthcare professionals, community-based organizations and AIDS service organizations contributing greatly to reducing the incidence of HIV. But a new report on HIV infections from the Public Health Agency of Canada illustrates the need to expand the reach and impact of HIV prevention and treatment efforts.
Closing this access gap means expanding health systems to include grassroots outreach and the community-level advocates who lead the charge. It is well documented that village-level and even home-based HIV testing greatly improve rates of testing. The same is true for HIV education, counselling, and treatment follow-up.