By Ryan Mitchell The Afro News Vancouver ;Interviewed: Chair of B.C Persons AIDS Society, Glyn Townson
It has been thirty years since the AIDS pandemic hit the mainstream media, but many communities including ones in the Lower Mainland, have neglected the issue since the virus has slowly dropped from news headlines. The question is why has the public shut down the dialogue?
The Public Health Agency of Canada reports the most common spread of infection for the black community is through heterosexual contact. To address this issue, Chair of B.C Persons AIDS Society, Glyn Townson shares insight into why many people might not be having the conversation.“Part of the issue is that when it first showed up in [North America], it affected very specific populations, and that attached a lot of stigma, unfortunately [producing] misinformation about HIV.” Rumours surrounding circumstances of how people obtain HIV scared most, and made people almost reluctant to openly chat. “We have fallen off the radar, for the most part, there was a little bit of news about the International AIDS conference in 2006, but generally the population isn’t talking about HIV a lot.” The cultural stigma of the pandemic created stereotypes and have alienated groups.
Townson states a growing trend of foreigners who were documented as HIV negative in their home country who became HIV positive in Canada. “It is a challenge to see citizens who leave their home country HIV negative, and they come here and become HIV positive. People think once they are here, they are safe, away from a pandemic country but when you come to a new place you are looking for things that are familiar, and you tend to surround yourself with familiar things and sometimes that can be problematic.” Glyn Townson stresses the subject of HIV is not on a distant continent, but a concern that is in local neighbourhoods.
He point outs the community stigma contributes to the lack of information about the virus, leading many people to participate in risky behaviour without taking precautions in protecting themselves. He notes Churches that are educating young people about safe sex methods and cautioning that it is a local problem, not something that is only bound for specific type of people. “We want to engage people in the conversation, around their own health, around their own settings, and find ways we can help.”
Treatment has drastically changed in the past few decades, first generation medications that were highly toxic have been replaced by medications that improve the quality of life, in certain cases to an extent of someone who is not HIV positive. However, Townson says in all cases, the diagnosis has to be discovered in the early stages of infection in order for the medication to work to its full potential.
The Chairman emphasizes how education can keep people safe. “What we would like to tell people is that if you have partaken in risky activities like: unprotected anal or vaginal sex, used shared needles or shared any drug paraphernalia, you have to know the formula on how to get [HIV]. Once you know the proper and accurate information you can protect yourself.”
Members of the B.C AIDS Society encourage dialogue to start again and continue, especially in visible minority groups. Many from an ethnic background who have the condition are afraid to speak out due to the response from their communities; Townson warns ignoring the issue is dangerous, especially in communities where it is not heavily present. “We are seeing a ‘creepage’ into different populations, where it wasn’t before. It means our prevention messages are not getting out there and [it] also means people still have the attitude of ‘that is not going to affect me.’ The reality is: if someone has had unprotected sex with someone they don’t know the history of, there is a potential [of receiving HIV]. People have to be aware of the situation. “
He mentions he does not want to scare anyone; however it is critical to embrace the issue among all sub populations and communities. “We want to involve people into the discussion because HIV is entirely preventable, but it is a matter of getting through that stigma, and also getting through those barriers, and being able to talk about things that people may not be comfortable with.” Although there is still no cure for HIV or a vaccine that exists to prevent the virus, Townson notes treatments have significantly changed in the past few decades and one who lives with HIV can still lead a healthy full life.
The Public Health Agency of Canada statistics www.avert.org/canada-aids.htm