J is sitting quietly in the corner by the front door of the café. There are several people scattered around the room chatting, drinking coffee, eating nachos or oversized muffins. J keeps to himself. J has a cold. He warns me of it when I sit down. “I used to get really scared,” he says, “every time I got sick.” He stirs his coffee and smiles:
I would wonder, is this the one? Is this just a cold or some kind of rare pneumonia? Being HIV positive, you can get vigilant looking for the infection that could take you out. I was diagnosed in 1995. Back then, everybody thought it was a death sentence. I was scared at first, then angry, but it turned out I was one of the lucky ones. I got on medication early, stuck to it and got suppressed. So, it’s all good, right?
Today, at 50, J is part of some positive statistics. An increasing number of people living with HIV are living longer, healthier lives. The BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS estimates that there are 273 people in northern B.C. living with HIV and 123 of them are over 50 years old. About 92 of those are on antiretroviral therapy (ART) medication and 66 are suppressed – that is, the virus is undetectable in their blood.
Back in the café, J looks around the room:
It was hard to stick with the meds at first. The side effects were a problem and it’s tough staying on track when you don’t feel sick or when the side effects are what are making you feel sick. They were harsh in the early days. They’re so much better now.
The key to a long and healthy life for people living with HIV is to be tested and diagnosed early, before their immune system is seriously compromised, then to begin treatment and keep on track with it. Over time, the medications have improved. Current regimens require fewer pills, have fewer side effects, and less toxicity. “I used to wonder how people would react if they knew,” J says,
Back then there was still a lot of stigma … not so much anymore. People ask how I got infected. I don’t mind that so much. It’s none of their business, really, but at least they are up front about asking. What really gets to me are the ones who just make assumptions … usually negatives.
People living with HIV still deal with stigma. People fear the disease and jump to conclusions about people who have it. The truth is everyone is at risk for HIV. Stand up and show your support. Join the AIDS Walk in your community this September – there are walks happening around the province from September 12-20.
In Prince George, where I live, September 16, 2015, is the Scotiabank Positive Living North AIDS Walk for Life at the Prince George Civic Centre. Registration is at 11:30 with the walk going from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. More information is available from AIDS Walk For Life.
About Andrew Burton
Andrew is a Community Integration Systems Navigator for Northern Health’s HIV and Hepatitis C Care team and works to support healthy living practices in communities across northern B.C. Andrew is developing positive activity and diet practices for two reasons: to deal with his own health concerns, and to “walk the talk” of promoting healthy living. Building on his training and experience in creative arts therapy, Andrew founded and runs the Street Spirits Theatre program promoting social responsibility among young people. This work has been recognized nationally and internationally as a leading method of social change.