AIDS still surrounded by stigma, say activists

World AIDS Day marked, activists say discrimination continues

AIDS activists in Canada say the epidemic has changed since the disease was first identified in the early 1980s, but the perception of those infected hasn't.

"There are still blatant examples of stigma and discrimination to people living with HIV," said Stephen Smith, community development director with AIDS Vancouver.

"And (there are) assumptions made on a broad level around who is at risk for HIV and who isn't."

World AIDS Day was marked across the country and around the globe on Sunday, even by the Chinese government, which has reluctantly begun to admit the disease is a problem within its borders.

An estimated one million Chinese are infected. The government staged an event in Beijing aimed at raising public awareness, and has introduced a prevention program.

Some areas of Africa have an infection rate of 35 per cent among adults. The disease has so depleted the workforce in Zimbabwe's agricultural sector that in the past few years the country has gone from being a major producer of food to an importer.

The United Nations estimates that around the world about 42 million people have AIDS or are infected with HIV, the virus that causes it.

About 50,000 Canadians are infected, and 4,200 new cases appear every year, according to Health Canada.

To mark World AIDS Day, people gathered in Montreal Saturday to open a new memorial named for Douglas Buckley-Couvrette in le Parc de L'Espoir, or Park of Hope. Couvrette fought to have the memorial built; he died of AIDS two weeks ago.

In Ottawa, people chose red scarves instead of ribbons. They carried placards marked with the red ribbon that is symbolic of the campaign to fight AIDS as they walked along the Alexandra Bridge.

The SHARP Foundation in Calgary, helping people with HIV get affordable housing, set up a Christmas tree at an art gallery in the city in memory of people who have died of the disease.

John Maxwell, director of community development at the AIDS Committee of Toronto, says the HIV epidemic is shifting in Canada.

"It was primarily a disease of gay men in the early 1980s," he said. "Increasingly, we're seeing it as a disease of women, of injection drug users, and of aboriginal peoples."

It's a change Smith has watched up close in his work with AIDS Vancouver. Since the mid-1990s, he said, there's been an explosion of infections among IV drug users in Vancouver.