In an effort to increase awareness of HIV and AIDS, Record editor Terry Farrell contacted a Comox Valley resident living with HIV, who agreed to an exclusive interview. The person’s name has been changed for the purpose of the article.
David remembers the day he was informed of his HIV positive status like it was yesterday.
“It, absolutely, was like a death sentence,” he said. “I went to get help for my drinking. When I checked into the recovery centre, I went to get general blood work done, as was part of it. I think the doctor had presumed I knew, so when he told me, he didn’t prepare me in any way. It felt like literally the rug had been pulled out from under me. I literally went to the floor. The doctor managed to see what was happening and he caught me, but it was pretty traumatic.”
David contracted the disease through drug use. He came home one night and his partner had a friend over. They were injecting drugs and David said he wanted to try it. He was assured that it was safe, and considering his partner was using the same needle, he had no reason to doubt it.
His life has never been the same. And while he still remembers the moment like it was yesterday, it was nearly half a lifetime ago.
David is 51 years old. He was 28 when he checked into that rehab centre.
“It’s been 23 years or so,” David said.
He has seen the effects of HIV advancing into AIDS.
“My partner became sick quite quickly,” said David. “The only thing that was really available back then was AZT (zidovudine). I knew it was poison, but it’s all there was.
“A year went by, and then he got very sick. He got cancer – Karposi’s sarcoma. He had these skin lesions coming out, like five a day, all over his body. Trying to get help was almost as bad as the disease itself because you can’t really cover that stuff up. You didn’t want to go out. You didn’t want to be seen in public. It was awful. They had given him about a month to live.”
This was just as a breakthrough AIDS treatment known as the “AIDS cocktail” was being introduced. The treatment ultimately saved his partner’s life.
“I can tell you he’s still alive today,” said David. “I don’t know where he is, or what he is doing, but I do know he’s still alive and if he’s not healthy, it’s not because of the HIV.”
The “cocktail” has morphed into the antiretroviral therapy threatment used today. Antiretroviral therapy has proven to be such a successful treatment against progression of the disease that HIV infection is now understood to be a chronic, manageable condition.
“The medications they have out now work very well,” said David. “There are side effects still, to the medications, but they have gotten so much better.
“I would compare the condition to something like diabetes, except that you acquire it. But it is that manageable now.”
David remains single, and not looking. But he said the HIV is not what keeps him on his own.
“It wouldn’t close the door. I am not looking for a relationship, but if I was, it wouldn’t close the door. It could hamper it, make it awkward, or prevent a relationship from happening, for sure. It definitely would have to be discussed before any intimacy were to happen for sure, but I think nowadays, that should happen anyways, regardless. There are so many things you can get, you have to be careful, no matter what.
“I would say assume your (prospective partner) has something, until you know they don’t.”
David moved to the Comox Valley six years ago. When his ordeal started, he lived in the West End of Vancouver, home to Western Canada’s largest gay community.
“That would be the most accepting place you could be in the world, probably, maybe with the exception of parts of San Francisco. But even then… it was scary.”
He said that although the Comox Valley is not nearly as progressive as the West End, he can live a comfortable life here.
“I would be more concerned to be in a small town in Alberta, I think. Just simply, I think the people here are pretty educated, and that always makes a big difference. Having an educated population makes a big difference, wherever you go. Ignorance breeds hatred, or whatever you want to call it. People get scared and then they attack.”
Sarah Sullivan is the manager of the AIDS Vancouver Island Courtenay and Campbell River offices, as well as a positive wellness worker.
She said that while medical advances have been significant, a support system is essential for those living with HIV and AIDS.
“There is still a considerable amount of stigma and discrimination associated with HIV, so people are often frightened when they hear of their diagnosis,” said Sullivan. “So we work with people to educate them about what life can look like with HIV… as well as help them with some of the issues that might come up for them. They may struggle with housing, financial things, relationship issues. We help them find resources and offer support.”
Above all, there is empathy.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the stigma surrounding HIV is also about homophobia. It’s unfortunate that people can get something that could potentially end their lives by doing something all of us desire, which is being loved, and having affection, and feeling pleasure.”
Men having sex with men continues to be the greatest cause of HIV diagnoses in British Columbia, accounting for 57.8 per cent of new HIV infections in 2011 (the latest study numbers available).
Sullivan said one of the big concerns remains the number of people who do not know they are HIV positive.
“Epidemiologists project that approximately 25 per cent of people living with HIV in Canada do not know they are infected,” she said. One of the problems in that regard is the misconception that HIV screening occurs with any blood test taken, regardless of the circumstance.
Sullivan said that is not the case. HIV screening must be requested by the individual, or by the doctor.
“That’s where a lot of the education has been done by family practitioners, regarding the new testing guidelines.
The number of people living with HIV in Canada increased 11 per cent between 2000 and 2011. There are now approximately 71,300 people living with HIV in Canada.
The good news is treatment of HIV has come a long way in the past decade.
“There is fantastic treatment for HIV now available,” said Sullivan. “Although there is no cure at this point, there are treatments that will suppress the virus, so that people can live a very lengthy life. With regular medical care and taking the antiretroviral treatments that are available – and free in British Columbia – people can live what is considered a normal life span.”
The antiretroviral medications bring the presence of the virus to a near-untraceable level over time.
“So the likelihood of anyone transmitting the disease is very minimal,” said Sullivan. “Then if you add to that safer sex, safer drug use and safer blood use, that’s how the (2030 target of eradication) will be met.”
All that said, the stigma associated with the virus remains overwhelming.
“I would say, in the north Island, there is still quite a bit of secrecy with the HIV status, and because once on medication, you can live a very healthy life, it’s not something they may share with very many people,” said Sullivan.
HIV/AIDS on Vancouver Island
• In 2011, there were 20 new HIV infections on Vancouver Island. This is a decrease of 13 from the previous year.
• In the North Island there were 2.5 new HIV infections/100,000 people.
• In 2011, there were 289 new HIV infections (the lowest number of new HIV infections on record)
• Gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM) continue to comprise the greatest number of new HIV diagnoses in B.C. (57.8 per cent of new HIV infections in 2011)
• As of 2011 there were 11,700 people living with HIV/AIDS in the province of B.C.
(These numbers were compiled in December 2012, and are the most recent numbers available.)