Advocating for action

HIV-positive students face added pressures

Marney McDiarmid, an educational co-ordinator at HIV/AIDS Regional Services, stands outside their 844-A Princess Street location in front of posters with slogans such as “50 per cent of Grade Nine students think there is a cure for AIDS.”
Marney McDiarmid, an educational co-ordinator at HIV/AIDS Regional Services, stands outside their 844-A Princess Street location in front of posters with slogans such as “50 per cent of Grade Nine students think there is a cure for AIDS.”
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John MacTavish can’t imagine living with HIV or AIDS and trying to go to school.

“I look at it as an HIV-positive person, which I am. I know how difficult it is to take medication every morning and remember to do it every morning,” he said.

MacTavish is the executive director for HIV/AIDS Regional Services (HARS) in Kingston.

MacTavish said HARS offers educational services and support services for those who are affected or infected with HIV/AIDS.

“We do get Queen’s students who may be looking for information on safer sex, safer drug use, and sexuality issues,” he said. “Especially at this time of year, starting in the fall, we probably get an increase of about five percent in young people coming in.”

Janet Elvidge, head nurse at Queen’s Health, Counseling and Disability Services, said free testing for HIV is available at on campus at the health centre in the LaSalle Building.

HIV is short for the human immunodefiency virus. The virus leads to AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, which causes your immune system to break down and become vulnerable to other illnesses. There is no cure for the disease.

MacTavish said the number of HIV infections is on the rise for youth in Ontario and there are a number of reasons why youth are becoming complacent about having safe sex.

“Most people are becoming complacent about safer sex. I think for youth, it’s an added difficulty because the youth haven’t had what we had when AIDS first came out where people were dying left and right,” he said.

“For youth, they don’t see that. In particular, with young, gay men, that’s not part of their culture. Being older, it is part of our culture.”

He said the number of infections in younger, straight women is also on the rise because women are becoming more aware of their potential for infection.

“Part of the reason why we see an increase in younger, straight women is that we see more women getting tested – women thinking this is also something that they have to be concerned about,” he said.

“Women’s risk certainly increases if their partners are injection-drug users or their partners are having sex also with men,” he said.

He said infected youth face different challenges and pressures when dealing with an illness like HIV or AIDS.

“One thing we see here with young people is disclosure. Questions like ‘who do I tell?’, and ‘when do I tell them?’. Maybe they haven’t said anything to their parents yet. I think also just being young, sexually active, enjoying life, those pressures add to it,” he said.

“With HIV, there’s a disclosure issue to your sexual partners. I also think peer pressure is big. We still hear from people who are HIV positive that the stigma and discrimination that is out there is very large.”

He also said the media adds added pressure to youth living with HIV and AIDS by misrepresenting the disease.

“If you look at treatment magazines, they always have really good-looking, healthy-looking people. That’s not reality,” he said. “We need to get rid of blanket comments like ‘use a condom’. We need to talk about the issues that go with it, and they change with every individual.”

The ‘Be Real’ advertising campaign was launched in Toronto on June 19, 2006 by the Ontario Gay Men’s HIV Prevention Strategy Working Group. The campaign targets gay and bisexual men, and other men who have sex with men.

The campaign encourages men to take care of themselves and their sexual partners using slogans like ‘Why don’t we always use condoms?’ and ‘What’s going on in his head – and yours?’.

HARS in Kingston is also participating in the campaign.

MacTavish said he liked the campaign because of its youth involvement.

“I think it’s a good campaign. I like that they have some youth in it,” he said. “One of the issues was that people were saying it’s not blunt enough. They’ve looked at the ad and said ‘okay, what are they talking about’.”

Marc Epprecht, a development studies professor at Queen’s who teaches DEVS320: Aids, Power and Poverty, agreed “It’s cool, I like the idea of ‘being real,” he said. “I guess the only problem that I can see is that our culture is so awash with messages. There are so many diseases out there.”

Epprecht cited the decreased participation in this Saturday’s AIDS walk as an example of dwindling support for AIDS in Kingston.

“I know that the AIDS walk is coming up this Saturday and I go to it every year. The numbers seem to get less and less every year. It’s kind of demoralizing, really,” he said.

In regards to AIDS awareness on campus, Epprecht agreed that students are more apathetic towards the cause because it doesn’t hit as close to home for them.

“It’s so unlikely that students here will be affected by catching HIV. The chances are fairly low. But indirectly we’re all affected globally,” he said. “It’s going to have an impact when there are 5 million people in South Africa who are infected.”

“There are probably a couple hundred people in Kingston living with HIV. That’s not a huge number but it’s significant.” The Arts and Science Undergraduate Society runs an AIDS Awareness Committee that works closely with HARS.

Raman Chahal, co-chair of the committee and ArtSci ’07, said that the committee is trying to raise awareness and help students understand that the disease is also a Canadian problem.

“People just like you and me are living with this problem. No one is immune to getting AIDS. You would never know it but it could be someone just like you,” she said.

“If it’s closer to home, we’re hoping to grab people’s attention in that sense. There’s always room for more awareness,” she said.

The committee fundraises money for HARS, and works with the organization to better educate Queen’s students about HIV and AIDS, Chahal said.

“This year we’re coordinating our educational talks with HARS because they hold educational talks all year,” she said.

“Any of the fundraising that we got last year was given to HARS. I think we are doing the same thing this year, because we will be collaborating with HARS throughout the year.”

They also hold fundraising events and participate in other events in the Kingston community to lend support.

“We’re going to be part of the AIDS walk this Saturday. We’d also like to have one [fundraising event] per term,” she said. “Last year we had the Christmas Care Campaign. We held donation boxes around campus in the JDUC and in residence. People dropped off clothing and non-perishable items.”

Chahal said one thing the group will work towards is making their committee more well-known on campus.

“We’d like to make our name more recognizable on campus,” he said. “If we could become a more well-known committee that would definitely help.”

HIV/AIDS in Canada

• 58,000 people in Canada are living with HIV/AIDS.

• Thirty per cent of the 58,000 are unaware they are infected.

• 2,483 Canadians were diagnosed with HIV in 2005, which is 13% more than were diagnosed in 2001.

• 43.5 per cent of HIV infections are transmitted through men who have sex with men.

• 30.8 per cent of HIV infections are transmitted through heterosexual contact.

• 20.5 per cent of HIV infections are transmitted through injection drug users.

• In 2003, females accounted for 42.5 per cent of positive HIV test reports among youth aged 15 to 29.

—Source: actoronto.org

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