This year marks the first time St. Thomas University will hold the AIDS Walk for Life. On Sept. 22, those affected by HIV/AIDS and their supporters, will come together to raise awareness, fund-raise, and remember those who have lost their lives to the disease.
Approximately 600 people in New Brunswick, live with HIV/AIDS, and an average of one person is diagnosed, each month. Nick Scott, executive director of AIDS New Brunswick, says medical advancements in Canada have improved the quality of life for those with HIV/AIDS. Now, some of the biggest issues are discrimination and stigma.
“There’s a lack of knowledge around HIV in general in New Brunswick, and with younger generations as well where it’s seen as less of an issue… You could easily be assumed that because you’re gay, you have HIV. Homophobic attitudes that still exist, unfortunately contribute to the spread of HIV,” Scott said.
Scott says recent outbreaks across the province, of chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea, are cause for concern. Having an STI leaves you more susceptible to contracting AIDS, through cuts or sores. He says it’s important to create a supportive environment in New Brunswick, so people feel comfortable getting tested for sexually transmitted infections.
“That shame is a barrier to treatment; it’s a barrier to finding out your status. A lot of people don’t know their status. They don’t feel like they’re at risk, so they don’t get tested. And then that’s how HIV is spread, that’s how STIs are spread.”
Scott says one of the reasons AIDS New Brunswick chose to have the Fredericton walk, at STU, is because they especially want to get young people talking about HIV/AIDS. In 2011, the New Brunswick government lowered the age you can get tested at, to 19. This means sexual health clinics offer the testing for 19 and under, but once you’re 20 it’s up to you to find a doctor willing to give you the test.
The university crowd is largely affected, because New Brunswick’s sexual health and public health doesn’t provide for them. This is despite the fact that in 2010 the Department of Health’s Disease Watch Bulletin showed that most people with syphilis are between the ages of 20 and 24, or 40 and 44. Scott points out that the UNB Student Health Centre offers STI testing to all students.
Diedre Smith is the support programs manager for AIDS New Brunswick, in Fredericton. She says having the walk at STU is important, because people in their early 20s are more likely to get an STI, and not even know it. She also thinks there needs to be a greater awareness to combat the stigma of HIV/AIDS.
“A lot of our clients recognize themselves saying, ‘I’m not going to die from this disease, but I have lost already.’ A lot of it is through social connections, like family or friends,” Smith said.
“So they say they died a social death.”
This year’s walk will put more focus on memorializing those who have died from HIV/AIDS. Scott went to Toronto’s AIDS memorial, this summer, and was inspired to recreate it back home.
“It was just something to see and hear the people affected by HIV. Not just living with HIV, but also affected by HIV, lost loved ones, friends, family. We want to have that experience here. And just to learn to appreciate the human impact, the viruses had on our world, and continue to have.”
The opening ceremonies begin at 6:30 p.m. and the walk goes from 7:45 to 8:45, ending at Officer’s Square. There will also be several speakers, music, prizes and a barbecue. People are encouraged to donate but Scott says it’s more about awareness, than fund-raising.
Everyone who fund-raises $10 and registers for the walk will receive a shirt, which will get them free cover at the Capital.
The money raised goes towards the AIDS New Brunswick education programs. They plan to start training high school and university students to present about sexual health, across the province.
Janice Ryan, campus minister at St. Thomas University, welcomed bringing the walk to campus.
“My hope is to have a good showing from the students because I think it’s important to educate young people about needs in the community and particularly those who are suffering from physical and mental illnesses. And those suffering with AIDS, that’s kind of a whole body experience, mentally, emotionally, physically.”
Scott says AIDS New Brunswick partnered with STU in the past, and the students were supportive. Ryan believes there was more awareness in the 80s, and this is a good opportunity to educate youth about HIV/AIDS, and other STIs.
“Anything where one feels isolated or alienated or stigmatized, it’s important to collect them and to reach out, and stand up in solidarity with people who are suffering.”
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