Support groups give HIV/AIDS diagnosis a new outlook

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When he worked in finance, Ken Buchanan was making big bucks. He gave up his high-stress banking career about eight years ago, however, after he was diagnosed as HIV-positive. Some days are better than others, Buchanan says of living with the virus that causes AIDS. But he’s found new meaning in his life in his role as board chair of Positive Living Society of British Columbia.

“On the days I volunteer, I get a six-dollar food voucher. When I’m walking home with my food voucher, I have far more satisfaction than when I was going home with a big paycheque,” Buchanan says on the line from the organization formerly known as the B.C. Persons With AIDS Society. “It feels so good to be giving back, to be a productive member of society, to be part of something that provides such invaluable support.”

Positive Living aims to empower those with HIV/AIDS through support, advocacy, and information. All of its board members are HIV-positive. It changed its name last year, on its 25th anniversary, to reflect the new reality of those who are HIV-positive: thanks to groundbreaking research—much of which happens locally at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE)—they are going on to lead long, full lives, with the virus never progressing to full-blown acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

“It was a really tough decision because we always want to remember those who came before us and those who’ve died of AIDS, and Persons With AIDS is a well-known organization right across Canada,” says Buchanan, who also happens to be battling blood cancer. “So leaving that out of the name was in some ways difficult but in other ways important. If people get tested early and diagnosed early on and get treatment and live a healthy lifestyle, many are living long, full lives. Many people, especially those who are newly diagnosed, are not getting AIDS. It’s not a death sentence anymore.”

One of the most dramatic advances in HIV/AIDS is what’s known as “treatment as prevention”, a grassroots program developed by the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. Treatment as prevention is centred on the notion that by providing highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) early for people living with HIV, it can decrease the viral load to undetectable levels and reduce HIV transmission.

This initiative is now being used around the world for the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS. It also prompted the BC-CfE to refocus its research toward expanding HAART to curb the growth of the HIV epidemic and to assess the impact of such expansion on the number of new infections in B.C. over a five-year period. The evaluation is part of a program called Seek and Treat for Optimal Prevention of HIV/AIDS (STOP HIV/AIDS), which has received a US$2.5 million Avant-Garde award from the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health.

The BC-CfE, along with the provincial government, is aiming the expansion of HAART coverage among hard-to reach populations in the Downtown Eastside and in the northern part of the province.

Under the STOP HIV/AIDS pilot project, BC-CfE assistant director Rolando Barrios brought together various HIV practices, clinics, and doctors to improve access to HIV treatment across B.C. His leadership is credited for increasing the number of patients visiting an HIV primary care provider and for raising the standard of care uniformly across the province.

For his progressive work in the field, Barrios is up for an AccolAIDS award. To celebrate the many advances in the treatment of HIV/AIDS as well as the care, resources, and services for those affected by the conditions, Positive Living is holding the awards on April 29. Held every two years, the fundraising event recognizes local people in a range of categories, such as health promotion and harm reduction; science, research, and technology; social, political, and community action; and philanthropy. New this year is the people’s choice community award, which all nominees are eligible for.

Among the many other nominees are William Booth, a board member of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and student mentor at UBC’s HIV elective course; volunteer Mario Brondani, who has established an education-based dental program at Positive Living to improve access to dental care; and Miranda Compton, who has worked at AIDS Vancouver and the Oak Tree Clinic and who now manages HIV/AIDS programs at Vancouver Coastal Health.

Nominee Fairlie Mendoza, meanwhile, is a community health nurse with the Cowichan Tribes’ T’sewulhtun Health Centre. She’s a cofounder of Strengthening Our Spirit, an aboriginal HIV/AIDS support group. Holy Moyo is an HIV-positive refugee to Canada and a founding member of the Afro Canadian Positive Network of B.C.

Then there’s Joan-E, the creation of entertainer and philanthropist Robert Kaiser, who has been performing in Vancouver since 1990 and is a tireless advocate for those who live with HIV/AIDS.

The late Peter Jepson-Young is also nominated for an AccolAIDS award. Diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1986, he had to stop practising medicine but went on to educate the public about his disease through the Dr. Peter Diaries, a weekly TV series. Weeks before his death, he established the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, and his legacy lives on at the Dr. Peter Centre.

Buchanan says there are countless everyday “heroes” who help people living with HIV/AIDS.

“The support I’ve received from other people with HIV/AIDS and through Positive Living has been invaluable,” he says. “I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

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