YYC community should offer more support

In 2011, more than 1.7 million people died because of AIDS.

According to UNAIDS, this number decreased from around two million in 2005 – which suggests hope for the future of people infected with HIV and AIDS.

However, the deaths last year almost total the entire Edmonton and Calgary populations combined.

Alberta’s two largest cities wiped out in a year.

That’s a fact that is certainly worth thinking about, and yet, although this week is AIDS Awareness Week and Saturday is World AIDS Day, it seems like the Calgary community’s awareness about AIDS does not match the gravity of the global crisis.

HIV/AIDS in the media

A quick search on three of Calgary’s most prominent newspapers websites illustrates this point.

During the entire month of November, leading up to and during AIDS Awareness Week, the Calgary Herald published four articles concerning HIV/AIDS – though none of them talked about the virus or its effects in our community. Meanwhile, the Calgary Sun published one article concerning AIDS in the month.

Metro Calgary had two articles talking about the virus accessible on their website – but both of these were actually published in print in Metro London.

Clearly, the media is not leading the charge toward awareness.

Certainly, most Calgarians are busy: busy driving their kids, busy at work, busy at school, or busy with the upcoming Christmas season approaching. So of course an issue like HIV/AIDS is not always at the fore-front of our minds.

But still, Alberta’s two largest cities wiped out in a year.

HIV/AIDS infections create devastating result

According to the UNAIDS 2011 report, 34 million people worldwide were living with HIV/AIDS last year. Out of this total, around 3.3 million were children. But only a little more than eight million had access to antiretroviral therapy, which can keep the disease at bay.

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, copies itself over time and damages the human immune system. It is possible for the infected to live with the HIV virus for many years, but usually only through the help of antiretroviral medications.

The virus effects global and local communities

AIDS is as a global issue, but it is also an issue right here at home.

In 2008, the latest year for which estimates are available, some 67,442 Canadians were living with HIV/AIDS. According to the Calgary AIDS Awareness Association, more than 25 per cent of infected Canadians do not know they have AIDS.

Jamie Schneider, a Calgary AIDS Awareness Association spokesperson, suggests via email that this lack of awareness is likely due to a lack of normalized testing in our society, lack of awareness about how people can get tested, or because of the assumption that testing for HIV/AIDS is part of having regular blood work done.

Although in Canada we are lucky enough to have a healthcare system that provides antiretroviral treatment to keep the virus at bay, 151 new AIDS cases were reported in our nation in 2011, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Although treating HIV/AIDS may seem as simple as taking a pill and “moving on with your life” – which according to Schneider is a mind-set that has changed from the “death sentence” associated with AIDS in the ’80s – HIV/AIDS is still a chronic condition.

And, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the medication that treats HIV/AIDS comes with many side-effects after long-term use, including organ damage, heart disease and diabetes. The public health agency also says that some treatments for the virus no longer delay the progression of AIDS because new strains of the virus are drug-resistant.

Community support is key

Although the virus may no longer be seen as a death sentence, those infected still need support from the community.

Schneider says, “It’s easier to sympathise with someone living with HIV/AIDS when it’s a small child in Sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s a lot harder to digest when it’s an intravenous-drug user down the street or a young gay male who chose not to wear a condom.”

Schneider adds that Canadians being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS are mostly from marginalized populations that “the public might not seem to care about,” so it is easier for the community to turn a blind eye.

The stigma surrounding AIDS still puts up a barrier impeding community awareness for this issue both at home and in the global community – yet being aware about the impacts of HIV and AIDS helps break down those walls. Being aware means being informed, getting tested if you are at risk, and supporting people within our city, country or world who need our help.

The population of Alberta’s two largest cities.

That’s a lot of people who could make a difference.

scomber@cjournal.ca