Culture  AIDS policy lecture night features head of McGill AIDS Centre

Last Wednesday, Dr. Mark Wainberg outlined what he believes to be the key policy decisions the Canadian government should make to mitigate the impacts of HIV/AIDS. His policy suggestions included creating more safe injection sites, expanding health education, and increasing aid to developing countries hit hardest by the pandemic, as well as resisting the trend toward the criminalization of HIV/AIDS.

The lecture program was sponsored by Pearson House, a non-partisan, student-run think tank that works to create and disseminate journals containing student-generated policy recommendations on a variety of topics. The program ran as a part of McGill HIV/AIDS Awareness Week, and centred around the theme of HIV/AIDS and public policy options.

Wainberg, professor of Molecular Biology and Virology and the Director of the McGill AIDS Centre, was featured among three other speakers: Dr. Claudia Mitchell, who spoke about her research with Youth and Grassroots Policy-Making; Pearson House President Emma Costante, who discussed how student initiatives can affect public policy; and Pearson House member Tim Mak, who weighed in on how public policy could be used to bolster funding for HIV/AIDS research in the private sector.

Although the turn out was low, with about 15 people in attendance, the four speakers nonetheless delivered engaging lectures. The central idea of the lectures was that when it comes to policy, the foremost consideration comes down to a simple question: “what works?”

Mitchell emphasized the efficacy of creating educational initiatives that engage young people’s voices in the policy-making process through artistic channels, such as photography, documentary, and theatre. She documented her own involvement with programs that encourage students to engage in group photography projects that deal with various topics of social import – from mapping out where they feel safe or unsafe in schools, to depicting possible solutions to HIV infection.

Mitchell showcased some of the photographs that have come out of these programs, such as one of a toilet accompanied by the caption: “You can be raped in the toilet.” Mitchell held that images such as these have been used to inform policy, noting that UNICEF’s water and sanitation policy now includes a clause on monitoring the security and safety of girls’ toilets.

Such programs have been implemented in rural schools throughout sub-Saharan Africa, including Rwanda, South Africa, and Swaziland, and a new initiative following this model, dubbed “Taking Action,” is currently in the works for Canadian Aboriginal youth.

Wainberg’s lecture, meanwhile, centred on the “moral responsibility” that countries such as Canada have to fight the AIDS pandemic both within their own borders and internationally. He argued that the battle against the disease can be waged through proper policies.

“I want the government to listen to science. I want policy to be driven by evidence, not by political wishful thinking,” Wainberg said.

In this vein, Wainberg advocated for the expansion of safe injection sites – such as InSite, a Vancouver-based facility where addicts can practice clean, physician-supervised injection – across Canada, an idea which was defeated by the current health minister earlier this year.

While Wainberg noted that some people think that InSite’s existence is equivalent to the government condoning drug use, he was adamant that this line of reasoning was unsound.

“No one condones the misuse of illicit drugs,” Waniberg said. “This is [about] harm reduction.”

Wainberg also came out strongly against the criminalization of HIV transmission. Though he referred to Johnson Aziga, a man currently standing trial in Hamilton, Ontario for the knowing transmission of HIV to 11 women, as “the scum of the earth,” he also stressed the many negative consequences of criminalization – such as stigmatization and the further deterrence of individuals from getting tested. Wainberg emphasized that such consequences could have a potentially devastating effect on the implementation of a successful public health plan.

“We don’t want to establish a deterrent for HIV testing,” he said. “The best way not to know is to not get tested, [especially] when you know that you are potentially a member of a group of people who could be [targeted by accusations] of transmitting a lethal infection.”

Groups such as sex workers, homosexuals, and women all fall under this category of greater vulnerability to HIV-criminalization laws.

The overarching message that came across in the lectures was that the key to effective policy-making in the fight against HIV/AIDS is the inclusion of all populations and voices when creating policies. Wainberg contended that in order to effectively encourage people to step forward, get tested, and speak out, it is necessary to encourage a feeling of protection under the law, not a fear of visibility.