HIV activists are marking World AIDS Day by urging Ottawa to help stop a global rollback in progress to curb infections and stigma.
“It’s clear to us that this government is seized of the issue, but the truth is that no movement is happening fast enough for people living with HIV in Canada,” says Janet Butler-McPhee, who co-leads the HIV Legal Network in Toronto.
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The Public Health Agency of Canada estimated that 62,790 people in Canada were living with HIV in 2020, and that 10% of them did not know they had the virus.
This represented a slight drop in the total number of cases compared to 2018, but an increase among the most vulnerable.
Indigenous people accounted for nearly one-fifth of new HIV infections in Canada in 2020, the data shows. That year, women and injecting drug users accounted for a growing share of infections, while men who have sex with men accounted for a smaller share.
Proponents argue the numbers reflect the uneven effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Butler-McPhee noted that the Harper and Trudeau governments have both promised funding to local groups that serve people living with HIV that has not fully materialized, despite the added factors of a toxic drug crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You’re talking about organizations that have had to pivot quite significantly and take on new work without long-promised funding,” she said.
Meanwhile, Canada continues to lag behind its peers in criminalizing HIV non-disclosure. Canadians living with the virus can be sued for not disclosing their status to their sexual partners, even when prescription drugs prevent transmission of the virus.
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“Criminalization can lead to stigmatization of people living with HIV, which can often discourage individuals from seeking testing or treatment,” the Justice Department noted in October.
The Liberals have been promising to fix the problem since 2016, but only launched a national consultation in October. They also called on prosecutors to avoid criminalizing people living with HIV in the territories, while suggesting the provinces do the same, with mixed success.
“Over the past six years, the federal government has recognized that HIV criminalization is a problem in Canada, but there hasn’t been as much movement as we would like,” said India Annamanthadoo, a lawyer at the Legal Network HIV.
Abroad, the World Health Organization has reported disruptions in HIV patients’ access to treatments that suppress symptoms and prevent the virus from progressing to AIDS, as countries target their health systems to stem COVID-19 infections.
This has stalled progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of ending the HIV-AIDS epidemic by 2030.
Prior to the pandemic, the Joint United Nations Program on AIDS reported that AIDS-related deaths had fallen by 68% since the peak in 2004 and by 52% since 2010.
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Thursday marks World AIDS Day, which the United Nations has celebrated every year since 1988. The disease has killed around 40 million people, including 650,000 in 2021.
In a report released this week, the agency said inequalities would make it impossible to achieve the global goals, whether it was the presence of girls and women in school or the continued stigmatization of men with sex with men.
Girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa between the ages of 15 and 24 are contracting HIV at a rate three times higher than that of men in the same age group, the agency reported.
Gay men and people who engage in sex work are more likely to avoid HIV testing when the country they live in criminalizes their behavior, according to the agency.
In September, Canada was praised for pledging $1.2 billion to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, after months of fears Ottawa would withdraw funding.
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The move came after the Liberals canceled a ministerial speech at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal this summer, a summit clouded by controversy after African delegates were denied visas.
Back home, the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network argues that mainstream awareness campaigns and access to HIV prevention drugs are not reaching Aboriginal communities, especially women.
Trevor Stratton, an Ojibway activist with the group, told an online panel on Wednesday that Ottawa should launch an investigation into the disproportionate rates of HIV among Indigenous people.
“It’s a national embarrassment; when I travel abroad, I’m really embarrassed to be a Canadian citizen,” he said.
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