Message to young, sexually-active people: Don’t get lax about HIV/AIDS. Although it doesn’t kill as quickly as it used to, it’ll hasten illness and aging.
“For the young, active person in a large urban centre, the disease is still out there and still growing,” says Dr. Ann Stewart, medical director of Casey House in Toronto. “There’s a common perception among the younger crowd that if they get it they’ll go on meds. Yes, the medications are miraculous and they’ve brought people back from the brink. But they have complications. It is still a big experiment.”
Someone who is HIV positive and has been on a drug cocktail for 10-15 years may develop complications of aging similar to a person over age 65, says Stewart. This phenomenon is known as “the greying of HIV/AIDS.”
Before the advent of anti-retroviral drug cocktails, people who developed HIV/AIDS were often dead within 10 years, she says. Nowadays they can live more than twice that long. Indeed, some of the earliest HIV/AIDS patients from the early 1980s are still alive.
“They can survive the opportunistic infections, wasting, and pneumonia associated with AIDS, but they are at higher risk for other chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, and lung cancer,” says Stewart.
Other diseases that occur earlier in the HIV/AIDS population are many different cancers, kidney disease, osteoarthritis, chronic pain, dementia and depression. The medications are a blessing and a curse, she says, because people on drug cocktails living with HIV/AIDS get more illnesses and therefore need more medications to treat the subsequent illnesses. “The number of pills creeps up and up,” says Stewart.
Toronto is definitely a hot spot for HIV/AIDS. Of all Canadians living with HIV nearly one-third, or 17,000, live in Toronto. Projections point to a mind-boggling statistic: One in 128 adult Torontonians will be HIV positive by 2012, according to Dr. Robert Remis from the University of Toronto, who monitors the spread of the disease.
A huge majority of people with HIV (81.8 per cent ) live in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. Nearly half (44 per cent) of all cases are in Ontario.
Heavier rates of infection are now being seen in Aboriginal peoples.
It’s not safe to think of HIV/AIDS as the “gay man’s disease.” Now, almost one third of new cases are in people who acquired the virus through heterosexual sex, according to a spokesperson from Casey House. Women account for about a quarter of all cases. And remember: a quarter of people who are HIV positive don’t know they have it, meaning that they could unknowingly transmit it.
“This is not a disease you want to get. Practice safe sex by using a condom and always ask your partner whether they have been exposed,” suggests Stewart.
Voices of Hope
Tonight, on World AIDS Day, lose yourself in song while honouring those who have died. You can attend one of the Voices of Hope concerts, celebrating lives lost and raising awareness and support for those suffering from HIV/AIDS. These concerts were launched collaboratively in 2008 by Casey House in Toronto, Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation in Vancouver, and La Maison du Parc in Montreal.
• Toronto concert: Tonight, 7 pm., Metropolitan United Church, 56 Queen St. E. Free, with donations gratefully accepted. For more details, see www.caseyhouse.com.
• Vancouver Concert: Tuesday December 1, 7:30 pm at Christ Church Cathedral, 690 Burrard St. $20 suggested donation.