Health: Sex: HIV/AIDS and you
By Sandra Fletcher
My friend Eli recently celebrated his 50th birthday and all of his friends gathered to commemorate this important event. Eli is HIV positive and when he was diagnosed, back in 1983, we never thought that he would see 30 let alone a milestone like 50.
But times and treatments have changed so very much with regard to AIDS. Once thought to be an automatic death sentence, it is now often treated as a chronic sexually transmitted disease but one for which there remains only treatment. There is no cure for HIV/ AIDS and one day, AIDS will kill Eli.
What is HIV?
HIV is a disease that is transmitted from person to person though fluids (i.e. blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk). Sometimes this happens through blood transfusions or sharing needles but the main way HIV is transmitted is through sex. Any kind of unprotected sex (sex without a condom) puts you at risk for a sexually transmitted disease.
A person with HIV has a lowered immune system. They can catch any kind of illness that might not normally make someone sick but because they are without enough anti-bodies, these illnesses can be fatal.
When a person has one of the serious illnesses or cancers which are called “AIDS-defining,” that person is said to have AIDS. People with AIDS have no immunity at all to protect them from disease. Their body is just not able to defend them against any illness. AIDS is always fatal.
You or your partner can have HIV and not know it. It can be months or years before you feel sick or have any serious signs, but you can still pass HIV to others. Though some people have no symptoms, some signs of HIV may include:
- Rapid weight loss
- Night sweats
- Feeling very tired
- Thrush (yeast infection of the mouth)
- Vaginal yeast infections (that often keep coming back after you have been treated)
The only way to know that you have HIV is to be tested to see if your blood has HIV antibodies. Your family doctor, a clinic or sexual-health specialized clinic (such as the Hassel Free Clinic in Toronto) can help you decide whether getting tested is right for you. Andrew Brett, Communications Coordinator with the AIDS Committee of Toronto recommends that anyone questioning their status get tested. While HIV can’t be cured, there are some medicines that can slow down the growth of HIV for a long time, but the virus is still in the body. It can still be passed to others. There is no cure.
How can you get it?
HIV is not easily transmitted from one person to another. You cannot get HIV through casual or everyday contact such as shaking hands, sneezes, hugging or kissing.
The only way to prevent HIV infection is to wear condoms – every time you have sex with anyone who is not a permanent partner! There are many places that you can get condoms for free. Sexual health clinics, AIDS health clinics and city public health offices all offer free condoms. All you need to do is ask.
Preventing the spread of HIV is everyone’s responsibility. But, what do you do if you have been diagnosed as HIV positive? People living with HIV can live a normal life as long as they keep healthy.
How to stay healthy with HIV
Find a doctor who can help you manage your illness. Part of this can be putting together an entire health care team. This can include a nutritionist, counsellor and other specialists or doctors that can help you. The healthier you are, the more you are able to fight off disease and infection.
Get support. There are many government and community resources that provide support in all kinds of ways. For example, the AIDS committee of Toronto is a full service support agency. Their website, www.actoronto.org, has links to resources, information and all of their programs and supports which include employment, counselling and healthy eating among others.
You can also find support from various cultural agencies within your own community. Many organizations can provide help to those who need it.
- Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (416) 599–2727 www.asaap.ca
- Asian Community AIDS Service (416) 963–4300 www.acas.org
- Immigrant Women’s Health Centre (416) 323–9986
- Africans In Partnership Against AIDS (416) 924–5256 www.apaa.ca
- African and Caribbean Council on HIV/AIDS in ON (416) 977–9955 www.accho.ca
- African Community Health Services (416) 591–7600
It is possible to immigrate to Canada if you are already HIV positive. The position of the Canadian Government is that the health care costs of any new immigrant must not pose an undue burden on the existing Canadian health care system. HIV is treated no differently than any other illness. It is recommended that as a new immigrant to the country, if you are HIV positive, you do seek counselling and know your rights and responsibilities.
No person can be discriminated against in Canada on the grounds of their health. It is not legal for employers to ask about your health or HIV status.
HIV affects over 50,000 people in Canada. It is unfortunate, but infection continues to be on the rise with women representing the highest increase in infection rates.
Canadians are lucky in that we have a country which does not discriminate against people with HIV and AIDS. Many other countries are not so lucky. Worldwide over 33 million people have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and there are over 2.5 million new diagnoses each year.
There is only one way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and that is to practice safe sex.
Always wear a condom when engaging in any sexual activity. Always protect yourself and your partner. The only way to ensure that we stop having to live with this disease is to stop it!