By Adam Hooper
A new Canadian report released in time for World AIDS Day reveals that HIV, the virus that leads to the AIDS, continues to spread throughout Canada and particularly in Ottawa, where infection rates are the second-highest in the country.
The report – released in advance of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 – estimates 65,000 Canadians were HIV-positive by the end of 2008, a 14.7 per cent increase over 2005’s count of 57,000.
The incidence of infection in Ottawa is much higher than in the rest of Canada and is climbing faster. The Ontario Public Health Agency confirmed over 3,000 infections in Ottawa by 2007 and added another 165 diagnoses in 2008. And those are just the known cases.
“On average there are about two new HIV infections in Ottawa per week,” said Jay Koornstra, executive director of Bruce House, an organization which provides housing, care and support to people living with HIV and AIDS in Ottawa.
“We’re really far under-serving people living with HIV-AIDS in this city,” said Koornstra. Bruce House offers support services to 35 homes, but there are still 250 infected people on the waiting list. Many are couch-surfing or hiding their status from the people they live with.
The higher incidence of HIV cases disguises some good news. According to the report, part of the reason for the higher infection rate is that people with the disease are living longer. But it also estimated that 16,900 Canadians don’t know they are infected with HIV.
“More and more people are infected by people who publicly don’t know they’re HIV-positive,” said Koornstra.
And some don’t want to know. Koornstra pointed out that many people who suspect they have HIV are afraid to get tested.
“The repercussions of being tested are very real,” he said, citing concerns over people being jailed for not disclosing their status to their partners, or being turned out of their homes after telling the people they live with.
“We’re still dealing with stigma and discrimination,” said Monique Doolittle-Romas, executive director of the Canadian AIDS Society, which advocates on behalf of people affected by HIV.
World AIDS Day, said Doolittle-Romas, is a moment to stop, think, and work towards a world without AIDS. To mark the occasion, her organization handed 300 red AIDS ribbons to MPs and senators. Doolittle-Romas hopes the ribbons worn in Parliament on Dec. 1 will spread awareness of the disease.
“We need to talk about it on a regular basis,” she said. “We still have a lot of work to do around education.”