HIV no longer a death sentence, but stigma remains
CTV British Columbia
Published Wednesday, February 27, 2013 8:14AM PST
Last Updated Wednesday, February 27, 2013 8:18PM PST
Medical advances may mean having HIV is no longer a death sentence, but no drug has been able to treat the stigma that comes along with the disease, say longtime patients who say they still battle shame and blame.
Victoria artist Peggy Frank was diagnosed with the disease in 1987 after a university trip to Zimbabwe. A routine blood test came back with the life changing results.
“I get a call in the common room that im HIV-positive. It was the last thing in the world I expected to hear,” she told CTV’s Tamara Taggart.
HIV was synonymous with death in the mid 1980’s, the onset of the global epidemic. Frank said she “thought her life had ended.”
She has since endured harsh comments and judgments from people around her, and worse.
“I’ve had people spit at me, tell me I’m queer, weird, and it’s God’s punishment,” she recalled.
But as medical science chipped away at this killer disease, the artist started to “see little clues that there was some hope.”
One of the beacons was the Oak Tree Clinic, a specialized treatment centre at BC Women’s Hospital that specifically provides care for women and children living with HIV and AIDS.
For almost 20 years, the clinic has given education, treatment and neo-natal care.
Medical Director Dr. Neora Pick said HIV is now a chronic and manageable disease, where people can live long and healthy lives.
“We have 78 and 81-year-olds living with HIV,” she said.
A total of 550 children have been born to HIV-positive mothers through the clinic and none have been HIV-positive.
“Before it was 25 percent now it’s less than one percent,” Pick said.
In 2011, 289 cases of HIV were diagnosed in B.C. -- the lowest number on record since the start of the epidemic.
But patients and medical professionals say evidence showing a drop in infections isn’t enough to combat the fear and ignorance against a disease many people don’t understand.
Frank started fighting the stigma she faced with words, speaking publically about the experience of being HIV-positive.
She also co-founded Positively Africa, a charity dedicated to giving hope to thousands of African children living with HIV.
Today Frank is living proof that HIV can be successfully treated.
“This isn’t as scary as we think,” she said. “If people could just accept us as normal people that would be wonderful.”
There are about 13,000 people living with HIV in B.C., including almost 3,000 women.