Breaking down the stigma

Nadya Bell
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HIV positive people now living 20 to 30 years after diagnosis

Don Short works full time, teaches painting, has three kids and owns a house.

Sitting in an office at the Tommy Sexton Centre he sips on a large Tim Hortons coffee and talks enthusiastically about his job which includes developing and putting off programs for HIV positive people.

"It's been three years, January 2006," Short says.

He's not talking about his job, but in a way he is.

Don Short, peer counsellor for the Tommy Sexton Centre, works with people who have AIDS or HIV. - Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Don Short works full time, teaches painting, has three kids and owns a house.

Sitting in an office at the Tommy Sexton Centre he sips on a large Tim Hortons coffee and talks enthusiastically about his job which includes developing and putting off programs for HIV positive people.

"It's been three years, January 2006," Short says.

He's not talking about his job, but in a way he is.

"When the doctor gave me the news, the next day I was in the HIV clinic, so it's not like you're given a lot of time to process."

"Immediately you're given the information that you're going to live a long life, everything is going to be OK, there are medications. They explained the process of CD4 counts and viral loads and all that."

Short says that at 44 years old, he has realized that through HIV he has been able to bring together his skills as an artist and a teacher and use them for something he is passionate about - helping people with HIV, like himself.

"I have tough days, but it's more about my concern for people who are HIV positive that overwhelms me and that's only because I have a real personal connection with wanting to help people," he says.

"I want to be around for a long time and work and own a home and see my kids grow up, and have a good life. All that is part of my philosophy and my skills that I had has an educator before, now I want to bring into HIV education, meaning not just my personal story, but motivating people to take a hold of it and move forward and ride the wave," he says.

With advances in medication, Short says that all these things are now possible for people living with HIV who are now living 20 to 30 years after diagnosis.

"People with HIV are more independent now. They can handle their lifestyle whether that means working full time, they have kids, they can manage their homes and their relationships and there's a lot more information accessible through websites and the clinic," he says.

"And the medications work. The medications do keep the virus undetectable, so because the virus is brought down low and your CD4s are allowed to boost again, you have a longer life capacity span of time, and with that comes more responsibility and more independence."

CD4s refer to the part of the immune system weakened by the HIV virus, so when people have a very low count of these cells, and they develop an opportunistic infection, they are said to have AIDS - Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, there are roughly 250 people who are HIV positive, Short says.

While people living with HIV today can be happy and healthy, the public stigma for people who have the disease is still great, and the effectiveness of medications could be leading to a sense of complacency about the disease that leads people to forego the necessary precautions.

Stephen Alexander, programs consultant at the Canadian AIDS Society, says the growing infection rate in women is concerning.

"We're not seeing the death rates as high as they once were, but now that's a double edged sword because AIDS still does kill," Alexander says.

"When the sense of urgency like that disappears, people tend to relax on their behavioral changes, but the prevention messages remain the same. We're seeing that the mode of transmission is unprotected anal and vaginal sex and injection drug use," he says.

Tree Walsh, co-ordinator of the Safe Works Access Program in St. John's says that needle exchange is in much higher demand than when the program first started, and that it's an important part of preventing AIDS.

"The prime reason needle exchange programs were established was to prevent the spread of HIV," she says.

"We don't encourage people to use drugs. People are already using drugs. It's controversial, but it's a very effective way to help people," she says.

With World AIDS Day, the Canadian AIDS Society has released a survey of people living with HIV, showing that stigma is still a huge issue for people with the virus.

Alexander says the stigma is so great, their survey shows that close to half of those surveyed have not told their co-workers of their status.

Further, he says of the 60,000 who likely have HIV in Canada, one third to a quarter likely don't know.

Christopher Pickard, executive director of the AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador says he hears all kinds of stories of stigmatization, including that a quarantine sign was put up on an HIV positive person's room in a hospital.

Even the building where he works is not immune, he says.

"We called a plumber and they showed up here at the Tommy Sexton Centre not knowing what we were, and when they found out what we were about they would not attend to our plumbing because he said, 'I might catch the AIDS,'" he says.

In the lobby work that the centre does, Pickard says they work to protect the privacy of people with HIV, especially in areas like the new electronic prescription system.

nbell@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Tommy Sexton Centre, Tim Hortons, Canadian AIDS Society AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's, Canada

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Recent comments

  • f4r3w311
    July 02, 2010 - 13:26

    I still can't believe that people are acting like this. Catch AIDS from a plumbing job?? WHAT? This just goes to show how uneducated people are, though it doesn't really surprise me. This day in age, our society should definitely be more educated about the disease. The stereotypes about AIDS are enough to drive a sane person crazy. It saddens me to believe that some people in our society are still ever so ignorant.

  • up4discussion
    July 02, 2010 - 13:26

    great story, once again, of newfoundlanders helping their own...

  • K
    July 02, 2010 - 13:26

    I do not see why people are so afraid of people with AIDS or HIV. I am not positive for either one of these, but I am also not afraid of people that have the disease. To me, personnally, it is no different than someone who has cancer, heart disease, etc. It is still a disease with a grave outcome without proper treatments, but do we single people out with these other diseases?? No! So why then single out people with HIV and AIDS?

    If anyone did research on the subject they will see that even though there are a number of different ways to aquire the disease, the chances of it happening are very slim. Most of the things that you do that would put you in contact with the virus, you also protect yourself from (i.e working with or around blood or bodily fluids- you wear gloves.)

    To hear that a plumber was predjudice about doing work in such a great centre is hurtful. Why can't everyone just see each other as human regardless of age, race, sex or sexual orientation, and medical problems?

  • Selina
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    I suppose if there is a positive side to this terrible disease it is that people are now living 20 to 30 years after the diagnosis. So treatment is working.
    I can only imagine the shock and pain of being diagnosed with this disease. But the stigma that is attached to those who suffer from it, is equally hard to digest. It's almost like the Lepers we read about in the bible.
    Where is compassion and love for our fellow men and women? This is a time when everyone needs to be educated on HIV/AIDS. We all need to understand that there are other diseases that perhaps are spread through using public washrooms and facilities that we never think of. So why single out HIV/AIDS? We know why. We don't know enough about it and we are unwilling to get ourselves educated with the facts.
    Personally, I feel very sad about this and would love to work in this area such as Mr. Short is doing. It needs attention and we need more money to educate the general public to make them aware of the truths and myths of this awful disease. To all those who suffer, I feel your pain.

  • Anonymous
    July 02, 2010 - 13:09

    There's still far too many people under educated about AIDS. Afraid of catching the AIDS from a plumbing job??? You have to be kidding me. I worked with someone who was HIV positive and not once did I ever fear catching the disease by using the same washroom as him or giving him a hug.

  • f4r3w311
    July 01, 2010 - 20:13

    I still can't believe that people are acting like this. Catch AIDS from a plumbing job?? WHAT? This just goes to show how uneducated people are, though it doesn't really surprise me. This day in age, our society should definitely be more educated about the disease. The stereotypes about AIDS are enough to drive a sane person crazy. It saddens me to believe that some people in our society are still ever so ignorant.

  • up4discussion
    July 01, 2010 - 20:13

    great story, once again, of newfoundlanders helping their own...

  • K
    July 01, 2010 - 20:13

    I do not see why people are so afraid of people with AIDS or HIV. I am not positive for either one of these, but I am also not afraid of people that have the disease. To me, personnally, it is no different than someone who has cancer, heart disease, etc. It is still a disease with a grave outcome without proper treatments, but do we single people out with these other diseases?? No! So why then single out people with HIV and AIDS?

    If anyone did research on the subject they will see that even though there are a number of different ways to aquire the disease, the chances of it happening are very slim. Most of the things that you do that would put you in contact with the virus, you also protect yourself from (i.e working with or around blood or bodily fluids- you wear gloves.)

    To hear that a plumber was predjudice about doing work in such a great centre is hurtful. Why can't everyone just see each other as human regardless of age, race, sex or sexual orientation, and medical problems?

  • Selina
    July 01, 2010 - 20:08

    I suppose if there is a positive side to this terrible disease it is that people are now living 20 to 30 years after the diagnosis. So treatment is working.
    I can only imagine the shock and pain of being diagnosed with this disease. But the stigma that is attached to those who suffer from it, is equally hard to digest. It's almost like the Lepers we read about in the bible.
    Where is compassion and love for our fellow men and women? This is a time when everyone needs to be educated on HIV/AIDS. We all need to understand that there are other diseases that perhaps are spread through using public washrooms and facilities that we never think of. So why single out HIV/AIDS? We know why. We don't know enough about it and we are unwilling to get ourselves educated with the facts.
    Personally, I feel very sad about this and would love to work in this area such as Mr. Short is doing. It needs attention and we need more money to educate the general public to make them aware of the truths and myths of this awful disease. To all those who suffer, I feel your pain.

  • Anonymous
    July 01, 2010 - 19:45

    There's still far too many people under educated about AIDS. Afraid of catching the AIDS from a plumbing job??? You have to be kidding me. I worked with someone who was HIV positive and not once did I ever fear catching the disease by using the same washroom as him or giving him a hug.