Dr. Helena Swinkels
It’s World AIDS Day today, so an opportune time for all of us to unite against HIV infection, to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness. It’s also a good time to talk about the essential role communities, including First Nations communities, play in combatting stigma and supporting those living with HIV and AIDS.
Stigma plays a major role in isolating people living with HIV; it can lead to feeling too ashamed to seek preventative options like PrEP (learn more about this preventative medication here); get tested or seek help to manage HIV; or it can lead to feeling isolated and alone, resulting in not feeling able to take proper care of oneself. Community members can help by learning more about HIV and AIDS, ways of taking care of themselves to prevent HIV and other STIs, and understanding that it is still possible to live a long and healthy life while living with HIV. Communities can also offer support and understanding to people at risk of or living with HIV. It is through communities that awareness and education about AIDS can be promoted, helping to ensure that everyone can be as safe and healthy as possible.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that targets the body’s immune system, whereas AIDS, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, occurs when the immune system has been severely weakened by HIV. HIV is passed through blood and body fluids such as semen, pre-ejaculate, vaginal fluids, anal fluids, and breast milk. If HIV is diagnosed before it becomes AIDS, medicines can slow or stop the damage to the immune system and AIDS may not develop. This is why it is very important to know your status and to get the facts for prevention or management/treatment.
About HIV/AIDS in First Nations communities in BC
New HIV diagnoses are decreasing in BC among both the general population and First Nations people. Although data specific to First Nations on HIV/AIDS in BC is not optimal due to low reporting of ancestry/ethnicity, this is promising news. However, First Nations people – particularly women – remain overrepresented compared to other BC residents in the available data. These persistent differences reflect inequities in health as a direct result of past and present Canadian government policies and systems including, for example, the Indian Residential Schools system.
Reserves and rural and remote communities have additional barriers to accessing HIV testing and care. Concerns about confidentiality and the need for up-to-date information about HIV and access to quality services are common. Meanwhile, the FNHA and other health care organizations continue to strive for systemic improvements and improvements to existing programming. To read the 2017 BCCDC report on HIV/AIDS, visit the link here.
What communities and individuals can do to help
One very important way that all communities can help the ongoing HIV/AIDS response is to be educated and informed, and keep themselves aware of how to reduce the stigma still associated with the disease. The less stigma, the more freedom people have to seek prevention, get tested, educate themselves, and continue to live healthy and well. First Nations communities in particular can learn to be stigma-free and supportive and to promote safe and healthy sexuality, knowing that these diseases are the result of past and ongoing colonialism as briefly summarized above. To learn more, check out our past messages, including https://www.fnha.ca/about/news-and-events/news/nurturing-spirit-with-safe-sex.
There are also anti-stigma World AIDS Day campaigns communities can take part in like, "Rock the Ribbon Together," which features people across the world wearing red and/or a red ribbon to promote awareness and show support. On World AIDS Day, let’s stand in solidarity with people living with HIV, raise awareness, challenge stigma, and end loneliness and isolation.
UBC Learning Circle on Sexual Wellbeing, featuring Andrea Medley, FNHA Indigenous Wellness Educator:
December 12, 2019
This free webinar focuses on Indigenous sexual wellbeing, featuring some of the Indigenous Educators that work in sexual wellbeing across the province. Sign up for the Webinar here.
Yúusnewas: Yúusnewas is an Indigenous peer-led education program that provides workshops on HIV and sexual health in urban and rural communities across BC. Learn more about the program here.
Chee Mamuk: Chee Mamuk is an Indigenous program that provides innovative and culturally appropriate training, educational resources and wise practice models in STIs, hepatitis and HIV. Visit the Chee Mamuk program here.