Skip to content

'End the stigma and get tested' is World AIDS Day message

Let Communities Lead them for 2023 World AIDS Day/Indigenous AIDS Awareness Week Vigil

Even in this day and age, the stigma around HIV/AIDS continues, resulting in many people avoiding taking that all-important step to get tested.  

That is just one of the revelations shared by the AIDS Committee of North Bay & Area (ACNBA) on Word Aids Day, December 1st and as part of the kick-off to Indigenous AIDS Awareness Week event, held Friday morning.

One of the guest speakers, Raquel Rotchford, spoke as a person with lived experience.

She told the crowd at the North Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre that her husband died out of fear and the stigma surrounding AIDS/HIV.

“He spent 22 years in the pen all together, so he was afraid that he would be killed if he said anything. He learned not to say anything, ever. So, he gave me HIV without him telling me,” shared Rotchford.

Her message was to drive home the importance of communication, education, and the need for testing.

Rotchford received her diagnosis nine months before her husband passed.

“We had just gotten married, and we were going to the doctors, getting physicals because we were in recovery, to start to learn how to take care of ourselves and I got a new doctor, so she wanted me to test for everything and I did.”

That testing was life-changing for Rotchford.

“One hundred percent it was. The sooner you get tested, the sooner you get treated, the sooner you can know you’re okay,” Rotchford stated.  

This year’s UNAIDS (United Nations) theme is “Let Communities Lead.”

“Communities lead by example first of all. So, we try to lead the community in the direction of reducing the stigma, most importantly. Because if we can reduce the stigma, then all of the other aspects of HIV kind of fall into place,” said Stacey Mayhall, executive director of the AIDS Committee of North Bay & Area.

Mayhall went on to say that getting tested on a regular basis is important for reducing the potential for transmission.  

“You test, you treat, and you keep people in treatment,” stated Mayhall.

“People get tested, so they get into treatment, if we get everybody to stay in treatment then we reduce overall, the transmission of HIV across the board.”  

Guest speaker, North Bay Police Service Deputy Chief Mike Daze explains how North Bay and area can take the “Let Communities Lead” theme and run with it.

“It is really about finding the leaders in the community, and that may be through emergency services, not-for-profits, all the support agencies but it is also our people with lived experience. It is those quiet leaders who can guide us on how do we overcome stigmatization? We need to be educated, we need to be aware, and we need to be compassionate. We need to bring those things together to have a better understanding of the situations and challenges people face,” said Daze.

The Deputy Chief went on to say that the way to do that is to leverage the knowledge and expertise available in the community.

“We heard today from lived experiences about how they overcame some of the struggles they faced, and once we recognize what those hurdles are, it is about coming together and saying, ’Let’s put education campaigns out. Let’s look at these initiatives we’re driving at to say how do we make things better, to remove that stigmatization?’ It is really about spreading that word about what the facts behind the challenges and health issues are. The facts not the myths.”

Mayhall explains what the situation is like in North Bay.

“We’re doing well. Obviously, we don’t share the exact numbers of folks who are infected with HIV, in part because we don’t know. So, we know the people we interact with as an organization, but we know not everyone who is HIV positive comes to see us, necessarily,” said Mayhall who went on to explain that their job is to maintain contact and maintain support, to ensure those individuals are staying in treatment when they know they’re infected.

“Because that will reduce the likelihood of HIV getting spread to other people. So, our job is to support for the most part, to educate and treat.”

Mayhall points out some areas are dealing with statistics that are on the rise.  

“We’ve seen a couple of outbreaks not in Northeastern Ontario, but in Northwestern Ontario. And often those are about a particular individual who doesn’t know they’re HIV positive, who then is in contact with other people. That could be sexual contact but sometimes drug contact as well.”  

An obvious symbol of World AIDS Day and Indigenous AIDS Awareness Week is the Red Scarf project.

Volunteers knit or crochet red scarves that are hung along streets in the downtown core for people to take and wear.

“It is for remembrance, for all the people who have died from AIDS and HIV over the years, and now it is mostly about awareness, that everyone should get tested and know their status,” explained AIDS Committee of North Bay & Area mobile outreach worker Marie Wardle.

This year volunteers made more than 500 scarves, far surpassing last year’s total of 200 scarves.

With so many scarves at their disposal, for the first time, the AIDS Committee was able to take some of the scarves and hang them in Powassan’s downtown area, spreading the message even further across its catchment area.

“We tie them up on all the light posts, and anyone who wants to take one down and wear it for the winter, certainly can do so, and we’ve tagged all the scarves with a little message with the latest information about HIV,” explained Wardle.

“The statistics are four Canadians are infected by HIV every day; nearly one in four new HIV infections in Canada are female and 10 per cent of HIV infected Canadians don’t know their status.”

Wardle explains that getting tested is a simple process.

The AIDS committee office has a nurse practitioner and nurse on staff.

“It is just a little pin-prick, and you know within 20 minutes,” Wardle added.

“If someone comes through our doors and wants to be tested for HIV or HEP C they’re taken right away. No appointment is necessary. And we have people on staff who can counsel them. There are people on staff that have gone through HEP C.”

On Sunday, participating art galleries and tattoo studios, museums and artists will highlight the impact of HIV/AIDS during Day Without Art.

Launched in 1989 in New York, the day has since gone global.

“During the 80s and 90s, the artistic community was seeing the unprecedented loss of artists and colleagues because of the AIDS epidemic. A Day Without Art was initiated not only as a day of mourning but as a call to action from the arts community to increase awareness and demand for a response to the AIDS crisis,” explained Ashley Di Benedetto of the AIDS Committee.

“We cover the artwork as a symbol of what we have lost, and the impact it has had.”     

Indigenous AIDS Awareness Week wraps up on December 7th.