On Tuesday evening, the McGill Global AIDS Coalition hosted a panel discussion regarding HIV in the Montreal community as part of a series of events the group held last week for World AIDS Week.
Bluma Brenner, a researcher for the Jewish General Hospital’s McGill AIDS Centre, opened the discussion by emphasizing the importance of developing an HIV test that could detect the virus within the first three weeks of infection.
Brenner explained the importance of maximizing awareness of HIV infection, and stated that there are 15,000 HIV-positive people in Montreal, one-fifth of whom are not aware that they are infected. She added that studies have proven that unprotected sex and needle-sharing decreases once individuals know they are infected.
Brenner is currently working to develop a test for the antigens, rather than the antibodies, so that the early stages of the virus can be detected. She stated that in 1984, there was a peak in the HIV/AIDS infection rate, followed by a dramatic decline, which she attributed to a growing fear surrounding the virus.
There are many sites throughout the city where individuals can anonymously get tested for HIV, which is slowly increasing the rate of diagnoses, but Brenner expressed her frustration that a means of testing for the virus within the first three weeks of infection remains unavailable to these clinics.
Since the epidemic became a chronic illness in 1996, and improvements in antiretroviral treatment enabled victims to live up to 30 years once infected, there has been a decrease in immediate action implemented by both the citizens and government of Canada.
Brenner stated, “I get very excited because, as a scientist, my experiences with AIDS research have changed from merely doing an essay to working with actual people. I have begun to feel like I am actually making a difference.”
Michael Foster, of AIDS Community Care Montreal, and Jean-Francois Mary, an active member of the non-profit organization Cactus Montreal, later discussed the politics behind the lack of funding for HIV prevention programs, and current methods for eradicating new strains of HIV/AIDS in Montreal.
Foster and Mary both discussed their attempts to reinvent the public perception of HIV by discussing the virus at high schools, and through a variety of outreach programs.
Mary said that from the mid-eighties to the present, perception of those infected with HIV has evolved from regarding them as “non-human diseases of society,” to a more recent apathetic perception that HIV only afflicts homosexuals or intravenous drug users.
Mary went on to discuss his organization’s approach to HIV/AIDS among the drug-using community in Montreal. Cactus Montreal attempts to curb the rate of HIV infection within Montreal by creating a needle exchange and a program called Street Walks, which entails regular visits to bars, sex clubs, and drug sites where they provide sterile needles and refer people to clinics for anonymous HIV testing.
Mary and his coworkers at Cactus have also established a program to professionally train Montreal’s underprivileged youth on HIV prevention. Preventive strategies such as these, Mary said, “can thwart and eradicate new infections by preventing the spread of HIV strains.”
When the floor was opened to questions, one student asked why local and federal governments are so hesitant to fund HIV organizations Cactus. All three speakers agreed that politicians tend to view HIV/AIDS with apathy.
“HIV/AIDS isn’t an issue that’s in fashion for politicians, who respond purely to public pressure,” Foster said.