Healthy Living in the North

World AIDS Day 2018: Know your status

A hand holding a small red AIDS ribbon.I distinctly remember learning about HIV and AIDS back in 1992 during my grade 7 Family Life class (no need to do the math to calculate how old that makes me!). AIDS was absolutely terrifying to this naïve 12 year old. I clearly recall a few things:

  1. HIV could not be transmitted through every day contact like a handshake, hug, or even from using the same toilet seat.
  2. HIV was transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids, such as through unprotected sex or the use of intravenous drugs.
  3. HIV turned into AIDS, which then led to illness and certain death.

Since taking on my new role, which focuses heavily on HIV, I’ve been brushing up on the facts related to HIV and AIDS. I’m really proud of my teacher for clearly articulating that HIV isn’t easily transmitted. I think that having this understanding prevented me from being unnecessarily afraid of people living with HIV. She also taught the importance of protected sex and not sharing needles, which is still absolutely key in preventing the spread of HIV. However, some things have changed and it’s super exciting!

The facts about HIV

Advances in testing and treatment have transformed the prognosis for people living with HIV. Did you know that:

  • HIV is now considered a chronic illness?
  • Treatment, for some, can consist of only one pill per day?
  • People can live their entire lives with HIV and not ever develop AIDS?
  • A person with HIV has every chance now to live almost as long as someone who does not carry the virus?

However, these facts are only true for people who are aware of their HIV status and are actively participating in treatment.

Know your status

The theme of this year’s World AIDS Day is “Know Your Status,” encouraging all of us to know our HIV status. The latest UNAIDS Report shows that between 10-20% of people do not know they are infected with HIV. If a person isn’t aware that they have HIV, they will not be receiving the treatment that they need to allow them to live a long, healthy life and they may not be taking the necessary precautions to prevent the transmission of the virus to others. Alternately, once a person knows they have HIV, they can access treatment and psychosocial supports to suppress the virus in their body and employ the necessary measures to avoid passing HIV on to their loved ones.

When was the last time you were tested for HIV?

I was tested last year as part of prenatal screening to ensure that, had I been infected, transmission to my baby could be avoided. My mom was tested this year because her doctor offers testing to everyone between 18-70 years of age, at least every 5 years. My good friend recently asked to be tested before beginning a sexual relationship with a new partner.

It’s up to each of us to take responsibility for our health, and the health of our communities, by knowing our own HIV status. If you haven’t been tested recently, what are you waiting for? It’s a simple blood test that can make a world of difference. To get tested, ask your physician or nurse practitioner to order the lab work for you. For other ways to access HIV testing, or to learn more about the virus and how it can be transmitted, visit www.hiv101.ca.

I’m amazed at how far HIV research has come since those days of grade 7 Family Life. However, we still have a long way to go in reducing the stigma associated with HIV and eradicating the virus all together, and the first step is normalizing getting tested for HIV.

My son will be 12 in 2030, which is likely when he will take Family Life like I did. My hope is, by that point in time, there won’t be a module on HIV and AIDS because the ongoing progress on prevention and treatment will have been successful in completely eradicating the virus.

Ashley Stoppler

About Ashley Stoppler

Born and raised in Prince George, Ashley is a two-time UNBC graduate. She has worked for Northern Health since 2004 and has held nine positions across the spectrum of health care, ranging from Maternity to Long Term Care, and many areas in between. She’s recently moved into a strategic position with the Regional Chronic Diseases Program, focusing on HIV, Hepatitis C, Chronic Pain and Arthritis. Ashley is active in her community, sitting on the board on the YMCA of Northern BC and teaching yoga in her “spare time.” She also likes to channel her inner Martha Stewart at the sewing machine and in the kitchen, but what brings her the most joy in life is the time she gets to spend adventuring with her fiancé, infant son, and toddler dog.

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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.

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World AIDS Day 2013: A time to reflect and move forward in the fight against HIV

HIV testing

HIV testing will be offered as part of regular hospital care. Our aim is to reduce the spread of HIV throughout northern B.C.

December 1, 2013 marks World AIDS Day, the day that we annually honour those living with HIV, and commemorate those that we’ve lost to AIDS. It’s also a time to salute Northern Health’s community partners who work so diligently to support persons living with HIV/AIDS. They include Positive Living North, Northern BC First Nations HIV/AIDS Coalition, Central Interior Native Health Society, the Cedar Project, and the Northern HIV and Health Education Society. These organizations, and the world at large, have seen great changes since the first reported AIDS cases in the mid-1980s. Admittedly, many people still react with fear, shock and stigma when the topic of HIV/AIDS comes up. But due to great medical advances in HIV treatment, HIV is now considered a manageable chronic disease — not an automatic death sentence.

This year, Northern Health is marking World AIDS Day by introducing a new health care initiative that complements our current strategies to reduce the spread of HIV throughout northern B.C.

Request the HIV testThe initiative — which will see medical staff offer HIV testing as part of regular hospital care — will be introduced at the University Hospital of Northern B.C. beginning Monday, December 2, 2013. This new initiative is being undertaken in efforts to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS through effective screening and early detection, and to provide timely access to high-quality and safe HIV/AIDS care and treatment.

All patients over age 14 admitted to hospital will be offered an HIV test as part of their admission blood work. As with all medical interventions, every patient has the right to refuse an HIV test. This initiative is expected to be implemented in other Northern Health acute care facilities through 2014.

Why are we introducing routine HIV testing in hospitals? It’s because HIV is an important health issue with 300 to 400 new diagnoses made in BC every year. The number of new infections is not declining — and people are not being diagnosed early enough. Sixty per cent of HIV patients are diagnosed after they should already be on treatment. Evidence also shows that 25 per cent of people living with HIV are not aware of their status.

The routine offering of HIV testing has already proven successful in the Lower Mainland where Vancouver Coastal Health introduced the initiative in October 2011. Up to 94 per cent of Lower Mainland patients who are offered an HIV test as part of routine hospital care say ‘Yes’, because they appreciate knowing that they’re not being singled out to take the test.

Knowing your HIV status is so important for your health care. As health care providers, knowing our patients’ HIV status affects how we treat infections, cancers and even which vaccinations to consider. If you are tested and are diagnosed with HIV, you should begin treatment as early as possible. Why? Because early HIV treatment prolongs and improves people’s lives. People on HIV medications can now have healthy lives, relationships, and children.

hiv101.caThe routine offering of HIV testing initiative is funded by BC’s Ministry of Health. It’s part of the From Hope to Health: Towards an AIDS-free Generation initiative, formerly known as the STOP HIV/AIDS pilot project. Many of you are familiar with Northern Health’s STOP HIV/AIDS education and awareness campaign; one of our main goals was and is to normalize HIV testing, by urging everyone who was sexually active or using injection drugs to make the time to get an HIV test.

We’re hoping that our new routine offering of HIV testing initiative will finally take us to that next step, where HIV testing becomes the norm in health care, not the exception. But we need your help. Talk to your friends and family and encourage everyone to take an HIV test. Explain that routine HIV testing of all patients reduces stigma and improves early detection.

As we approach World AIDS Day, help us work towards an AIDS-free generation. Help us spread the word about HIV — not the disease. For more information, visit HIV101.ca.

 

World AIDS Day events in Prince George

World AIDS Day Candlelight Vigil and Dinner:

  • Date: Friday, November 29, 2013
  • Time: 3:00 – 5:00 p.m.
  • Place: The Fire Pit Cultural Drop-In Centre – 1120 – 3rd Ave., Prince George

Blood, Sweat, Tears & Laughter project — Play Creation Workshop, sponsored by Prince George and District Community Arts Council. This workshop is directed towards youth in and around Prince George and will engage them on their thoughts, feelings and stories concerning HIV/AIDS. These shared stories will be used by the local youth theatre group, Street Spirits, to generate a play entitled, Blood, Sweat, Tears & Laughter. The play will be filmed and turned into a resource for agencies who also wish to engage in HIV/AIDS research through theatre.

Workshop:

  • Date: Saturday, November 30, 3013
  • Time: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Place: 1148 – 7th Ave., across from Prince George City Hall

Play performance:

  • Date: Sunday, December 1, 2013
  • Time: 7:30 p.m.
  • Place: ArtSpace, 1685 – 3rd Ave (above Books & Company), Prince George, BC
Dr. Susan MacDonald

About Dr. Susan MacDonald

Susan is the Chief Medical Officer for Northern Health and has responsibility for matters of quality and patient safety in medical practice across the north. She has been the medical lead for the STOP HIV/AIDS project since 2010. Susan received her medical degree at McGill University and has certifications in International Health and Tropical Medicine and a Masters in Infectious Diseases. She practiced as a GP Anaesthetist in Quesnel and as a Family Physician at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver for over 20 years. She has also worked and trained in China, Nepal, Kenya and Peru. Susan has taught global health internationally and is the author of several health care publications including a chapter on Infectious Diseases in Asia.

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Choosing the choice of health

Theresa Healy running

Theresa Healy, loving running her first 5km race.

In less than a year of starting to exercise regularly and adding healthier choices to her diet, Theresa Healy, Northern Health’s regional manager for healthy community development, says she feels physically and mentally stronger – the best she has felt in her whole life. Last summer, Theresa was diagnosed with a number of chronic diseases including diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. After receiving the news, and struggling to come to terms with such a startling shift in her identity, she decided it was time to take action. I had the privilege to talk to her about her initial struggle and personal health breakthrough.

The first move that Theresa made was to monitor her diet. She didn’t completely cut out some temptations, such as chocolate, but she was committed to moderation.

“If I cut it out completely, it would be impossible for me to stick with it but, telling myself I could have some, helps me say no, at least most of the time,” says Theresa.

The second change was to become more active. She started with taking her two little dogs for extra walks, and after awhile, decided she would up the ante and try running.

“I never thought running would appeal to me. It seemed the epitome of boredom. But I decided I would try. Surprise – I loved it!”

To start off, Theresa set a target of five kilometers as the distance she would like to run. At first, she became exhausted after trying to run for even one minute straight and would have to take a breather. That’s where technology kicked in. Theresa found a free app for her smart phone called “Couch to Five K,” which sets bench marks for a person getting back into running or trying it for the first time. It started off with a two minute run, five minute walk cycle, and eventually progressed to the point where Theresa can now complete a warm-up walk of five minutes, run steadily and easily for 30 minutes, and cool down with a walk for five minutes.

After she was able to successfully run for 30 minutes straight, Theresa needed a new challenge. To keep pushing herself, she decided to enter her first 5km race. She finished the race in just over 37 minutes, something Theresa is very proud of. Now she looks to not only improve her time on the 5km race, but also improve her stamina as she prepares for a half marathon that she will run next year.

Theresa’s drive and determination to meet and exceed her goals is inspiring. She also now attends a gym to lift weights and work out in various other ways to stay fit.

“I got six free sessions with a trainer who didn’t want me running every day,” she says. “I was pretty peeved at first. I had just found something I liked and I was being told not to do it. Of course now I enjoy the gym as much as the running. I don’t have a six pack yet, more like a three and a half pack, but feeling fit is an amazing sensation. I don’t think I have been this fit since I played field hockey for my school – at 14 years old!”

After talking to Theresa and hearing her story, I think the key points to take from her experience are to set an achievable goal, to make a plan on how you will get there (like finding an app or program that guides you through the process or a friend that will push you along), and to put in the work. If you don’t put in the work, you won’t get the results.

Working in the health care industry herself, Theresa believes in promoting healthy choices to others. “We have to do it too. In order to talk the talk, we have to walk the walk,” she says in regards to healthy eating and active living.

I can tell you, Theresa is definitely living up to what she is promoting!

Jonathon Dyck

About Jonathon Dyck

Jonathon is a communications officer at Northern Health. Originally from Airdrie, Alberta, Jonathon has a broadcasting diploma from Mount Royal College in Calgary, Alberta, and a BA with a major in communications from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. Jonathon enjoys golf, hockey, curling, hiking, biking, and canoeing. He is also an avid sports fan and attends as many sporting events as humanly possible, including hockey, soccer, baseball, football, rugby, basketball, and lacrosse. (Jonathon no longer works with Northern Health, we wish him all the best.)

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