Medication now available for people living with HIV has been life-changing because it can bring the virus down to undetectable levels, says Khaled Salam, executive director of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa.
But whether all the people who could benefit from the medication can obtain it is another matter.
Many people living with HIV or AIDS are from marginalized communities and have less access to health care for a variety of reasons, Salam said.
Some may not be able to afford the $2,000 to $3,000 a month for HIV medication that is available to those on social assistance or who have company drug benefit plans. “If you are on a low income, your first priority is food,” he said.
Others may not have stable housing, employment and transportation or face language barriers, all of which make it more difficult to obtain medical care, he said.
To commemorate World AIDS week, the non-profit Aids Committee of Ottawa is launching a study to find out what kind of barriers are faced by members of Ottawa’s Black community living with HIV when it comes to U=U.
That stands for “Undetectable equals Untransmittable.”
“Now the science is there that clearly indicates that people, when they are on medication, have achieved such a low viral load that they can’t sexually transmit the virus to another person,” Salam said. “That changes everything.”
It takes away the stigma of living with HIV, he said. “For almost four decades now, people living with HIV have been stigmatized and discriminated against and seen as these vectors of transmission that are going out there and infecting everybody else.”
The study will conduct focus groups with people from Ottawa living with HIV to find out how much they know about U=U and what might prevent them from getting treatment and medication. The study will take a year to complete, he said.
There are eerie similarities between the COVID-19 pandemic and the global epidemic of HIV, Salam said. Both viruses have disproportionately affected racialized and low-income communities.
For instance, about one in 35 people in Canada identify as African-Caribbean and Black. However, one in seven people living with HIV are African-Caribbean and Black, according to the committee.
“Both pandemics have exposed the socioeconomic disparities and health inequities faced by Black and other racialized populations that create vulnerability to HIV and other physical and mental health issues,” the committee said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also made it harder for people living with HIV and AIDS to get testing, treatment and preventative care, Salam said.
For instance, it was more difficult to get HIV testing at sexual health clinics and doctors’ offices that restricted in-person visits at various times during the pandemic, he said. “And people were afraid to go out. It definitely had a huge impact.”
However, one bright spot last year was Health Canada’s approval of HIV self-testing home kits, he said. The AIDS Committee of Ottawa participated in a pilot project to distribute the kits in Ottawa.
“It’s been a huge blessing during COVID. It’s given people an alternative for getting tested.”
The AIDS Committee of Ottawa helps about 300 to 400 people a year with various services from support groups and counselling to meals and a place to do laundry. It also reaches thousands of people each year through its education and prevention campaigns, Salam said.
The organization plans several events to mark World AIDS week from Nov. 24 to Dec. 1, which is World AIDS day.
There are more than 68,000 people in Canada and 38 million people around the world living with HIV, the committee said.
World AIDS Day events on Dec. 1:
Red Ribbon Flag Raising Ceremony: On Parliament Hill at 10 a.m. in front of the Centennial Flame. All are welcome and will receive red scarves knitted by people impacted by HIV/AIDS in Ottawa.
Reception and performance: At the National Arts Centre, noon to 3 p.m. Open to the public. Includes performances of hoop dancing, throat singing, spoken word, a drag show, a BIPOC fashion show, an AIDS quilt ceremony and musical performances. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination required.