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.