Healthy Living in the North

The story of HIV is changing

Stickers with HIV awareness messaging

You can live with HIV if you act to know your status and deal with it. Even if you don’t believe you are at risk, find out. Know for sure. Get tested.

Earlier this month, you may remember a news story featuring actor Charlie Sheen, who revealed that he is HIV-positive. With World AIDS Day upon us, Sheen’s revelation is a reminder that that the story of HIV is changing.

It used to be that a lot of heterosexual people thought they got a free pass on HIV because it was seen as something you only had to worry about if you were gay or an intravenous (IV) drug user.

The way people viewed HIV – and the way that too many still view it – is coloured by fear. We all want to be OK so we look for ways to spin our thinking: “If it’s transmitted through a kind of sex I don’t have, then I’m OK. If it’s transmitted through IV drug use, then I’m OK.” This spin, however, feeds into prejudice and discrimination against those believed to be at risk and it gives many of us a false sense of security.

It may be because of these false beliefs that one of the best protections against HIV infection is not used as often as it should be. According to Statistics Canada, in 2009-10, more than three in ten young adult Canadians (15 to 24 years) did not use a condom the last time they had sex.

The truth is HIV is unquestionably transmitted through heterosexual sex. According to the STOP Report published in 2015, in B.C. between 2010 and 2014, heterosexual transmission accounted for 25% of all new HIV cases. In northern B.C., 39% of all new HIV cases were among heterosexual people. Another truth is that while high-risk sex with multiple partners may increase the likelihood of contracting HIV, it only takes being unsafe one time.

There’s another important piece to Charlie’s story, though. In an interview, he said that since he was diagnosed four years ago, he has been consistently taking antiretroviral medications. His doctor verified that he has a suppressed viral load. The current state of HIV treatment has advanced to the point where someone who has achieved suppression and maintains treatment can look forward to living a normal lifespan and is not a risk to transmit HIV to others.

Charlie Sheen’s story shows that you can live with HIV if you act to know your status and deal with it. Even if you don’t believe you are at risk, find out. Know for sure. Get tested.


Editor’s note: This article was co-written by Andrew Burton & Sam Milligan. Learn more about our blog authors.

 

Andrew Burton

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.

Share

Youth urged to use common sense and practise safe sex

Coasters with HIV awareness messages

Anyone can become infected with HIV or other sexually transmitted infections. Know your status, take precautions, and get the information you need before having sexual relations.

Anyone can become infected with HIV or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including young people. That’s why it’s so important to take precautions before having sex, advises Shannon Froehlich, manager of support services at Positive Living North (PLN) in Prince George.

Froehlich said there are many tips young people can follow if they’re considering having sexual relations, which includes both oral sex and intercourse (vaginal and anal).

“Abstinence is the safest approach. But if that’s not an option, young people should use a condom and lubrication every time they have sex,” said Froehlich. “And young people seem to consider oral sex to be safe sex — but they should be advised that it’s not.”

Just as important, she said, is having a conversation with your partner before having sex. “And don’t drink or do drugs beforehand to prevent careless actions,” said Froehlich.

Young people in northern B.C. are encouraged to visit their local health unit if they have questions about sex or are considering having sexual intercourse. Youth who want to be tested for STIs can visit their family doctor, or they can visit the local Opt clinic, which offers sexual health services including STI testing, birth control counselling, and low cost contraceptives and supplies.

Froehlich said PLN staff can supply youths with condoms and have conversations with them about sex — which will be kept anonymous.

“We can also share information about different STIs, and give them brochures that they can take to their partner to have a discussion about sex,” she said.

PLN, a not-for-profit HIV/AIDS/HCV organization, is a Northern Health community partner, and was a key participant in Northern Health’s award-winning STOP HIV/AIDS education and awareness project. PLN can be reached at three locations in northern B.C.: Prince George at 250-562-1172; Smithers at 250-877-0042; and Dawson Creek at 250-782-5202.

Visit hiv101.ca for more information and to learn about online youth educational options.

More information:

This article was first published in A Healthier You, a joint publication of Northern Health and the Prince George Citizen.

Joanne MacDonald

About Joanne MacDonald

Joanne MacDonald is a communications officer at Northern Health where she works on a number of projects, including the STOP HIV/AIDS program and integrated health services. Prior to joining Northern Health, Joanne worked in the journalism and communications fields in the lower mainland, Whitehorse and Ottawa. She keeps active by taking Zumba and spinning classes. She lives with her husband in Prince George.

Share

Taking aim at stigma: Northern Health offers routine HIV testing to everyone

Northern Health staff person stands in front of a display board for HIV project

As a member of the Blood Borne Pathogens team, Sam Milligan provides HIV/HCV education and consultation services to regional Northern Health programs and communities.

Northern Health is taking steps to reduce the stigma around HIV by introducing routine HIV testing for everyone, not just people at risk.

In addition to current risk-based testing guidelines, Northern Health has adapted the 2014 HIV testing guidelines developed by the British Columbia Office of the Provincial Health Officer. These guidelines recommend that everyone between 18 to 70 years of age, in both acute care settings and the community, be offered an HIV test every five years as part of routine health screening.

Preceding the release of the 2014 HIV testing guidelines, the University Hospital of Northern BC initiated the routine offer of HIV screening in December 2013 to all admitted patients who are having blood work taken for another reason while admitted.

“The Public Health Agency of Canada estimated in 2011 that approximately 25 per cent of people living with HIV in Canada are unaware of their HIV-positive status. Evidence also suggests that this 25 per cent account for up to 70 per cent of all new HIV infections,” says Bareilly Sweet, Northern Health’s Regional Coordinator, Blood Borne Pathogens Services.

“We also know that nearly 55 per cent of new HIV diagnoses in Northern Health are diagnosed late, with close to 20 per cent of new diagnoses fitting the criteria for advanced HIV. This means that over half of the people living within Northern Health’s region should already be on HIV treatment at the time of their HIV diagnosis.”

Historically, the reason for an HIV test has fallen into two categories: routine testing for women during pregnancy, and voluntary testing for everyone else. The problem lays in the second option — voluntary testing. For voluntary testing to occur, two conditions have to be met:

  • Health care providers need to ask their clients about risk and risk-related behaviour; however, current research evidence suggests such conversations are very difficult for health care providers to initiate with patients; and
  • Patients need to know they are at risk, recognize that risk, and be willing to disclose risk to their health care provider.

“Unfortunately, the current testing criterion stigmatizes testing. This discourages clinicians from offering an HIV test and discourages patients from seeking and/or accepting an HIV test,” says Sweet. “But that won’t stop us from continuing our work to normalize HIV testing, because routine testing will catch HIV infections in the early stages. And that’s what we need to do, because then we can improve the patient experience on every step of the HIV journey.”

St. John Hospital in Vanderhoof, Stuart Lake Hospital in Fort St. James and the Fraser Lake Health Centre began implementing the routine offer of HIV testing in the spring of 2014. Lakes District Hospital and Health Centre in Burns Lake and GR Baker Hospital in Quesnel are in the preparatory stages to begin offering HIV testing.

This article was originally published in September 2014 in Northern Health’s new internal magazine.

Sam Milligan

About Sam Milligan

Sam is the regional health systems navigator in Northern Health’s blood borne pathogens (BBP) services team. In his role, he provides education and consultation services to communities and programs across the north. Some of his responsibilities include improving community access to HIV & HCV treatment, increase testing for HIV/HCV, and provide current practice education to staff, physicians, and community members. If not at work or talking about work, Sam can be found in the realms of adventures with his two young sons or hanging out with the most gorgeous woman on the planet: his wife.

Share

World AIDS Day

Portrait of woman wearing shirt that says: "If you care, be HIV aware"

If you care, be HIV aware. For more information about HIV/AIDS and safe sex practices, visit your local health unit or Opt Clinic.

Today is World AIDS Day. For the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, World AIDS Day is a chance to get everyone involved in combating HIV/AIDS through the 90-90-90 strategy. The globally-recognized, made-in-B.C. 90-90-90 goals are:

  • 90% of those infected with HIV are aware of their status.
  • 90% of those diagnosed with HIV receive treatment.
  • 90% of those being treated have undetectable viral loads.

With routine HIV testing gaining momentum across northern B.C., we are on our way to achieving these goals.

World AIDS Day is also a time to think about prevention. Anyone can become infected with HIV or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including young people. If you are considering having sexual relations or are sexually active, which includes both oral sex and intercourse (vaginal and anal), World AIDS Day is a good reminder to have a “sex talk.”

Visit your local health unit if you have questions about sex or are considering having sexual intercourse. Youth who want to be tested for STIs can visit their family doctor or they can visit the local Opt clinic, which offers sexual health services including STI testing, birth control counselling, and low cost contraceptives and supplies.

In addition to combating HIV, Sandra Sasaki, education manager and positive prevention coordinator at Positive Living North, reminds everyone that they can also play a role in combating discrimination this World AIDS Day by participating in local events. Vigils and awareness walks are taking place across northern B.C. this week. Visit Positive Living North to find an event to show your support and to honour those living with HIV and those we have lost to AIDS.

In Prince George, this year’s vigil will be held December 1 at the Fire Pit Cultural Drop-In Centre (1120 Third Avenue) from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

For more information about HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, and practising safe sex, visit the Northern Health HIV/AIDS information source, hiv101.ca.

 

Sam Milligan

About Sam Milligan

Sam is the regional health systems navigator in Northern Health’s blood borne pathogens (BBP) services team. In his role, he provides education and consultation services to communities and programs across the north. Some of his responsibilities include improving community access to HIV & HCV treatment, increase testing for HIV/HCV, and provide current practice education to staff, physicians, and community members. If not at work or talking about work, Sam can be found in the realms of adventures with his two young sons or hanging out with the most gorgeous woman on the planet: his wife.

Share