An awareness campaign that AIDS Vancouver executive director Brian Chittock describes as “a new way of talking about HIV” will be highlighted this year as the organization marks World AIDS Day.
The campaign, called The New Face of HIV—What it Means to be Undetectable, refers to cases in which people have been diagnosed with HIV, but the virus is undetectable in their bloodstream as a result of anti-retroviral treatment.
“Their immune system is not compromised anymore because of the anti-retroviral treatment, and they’re actually as healthy as anybody else,” Chittock told the Straight by phone. “So it’s just a new way of thinking and talking about people who are actually undetectable.”
The logo for the campaign features a "reimagining" of the traditional red ribbon used to promote HIV awareness, with disappearing red dots symbolizing the HIV virus after anti-retroviral treatment.
According to AIDS Vancouver, most people with an undetectable viral load have a non-compromised immune system, will live a normal lifespan, and are very unlikely to transmit the virus sexually after being undetectable for six months. (The first two years of an ongoing European study has so far found no transmissions within couples from a partner with an undetectable viral load.)
The organization's latest awareness and education campaign is also focused on prevention and ensuring that people get on anti-retrovirals quickly after an HIV diagnosis. The Treatment as Prevention approach pioneered in B.C. ensures that people living with HIV have access to treatment at the earliest stages of infection.
“Treatment as Prevention has worked really, really effectively, and we want to continue to promote that because it makes people healthy,” Chittock said.
"If we get this virus under control, we can stop new infections from happening, and that’s our primary goal."
He added the campaign has also been empowering for people living with HIV.
“That’s what I think is more important, is the actual empowerment that it’s going to give people, and perhaps even change stigma,” he said.
That stigma associated with HIV is still prevalent, Chittock noted.
"It hasn’t changed in the 30-some odd years we’ve been fighting this virus, and we’re hoping that this will, by thinking about it in a different way—that people who are on medications, regularly seeing their doctor, [and] have an undetectable viral load, are actually very healthy and are able to live a healthy, normal lifestyle."
AIDS Vancouver will be hosting an open house at 1107 Seymour Street from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on December 1. Information on the undetectable campaign, in addition to other current initiatives and research, will be available.
The event will feature a Red Ribbon Awards presentation, and appearances from Vancouver musician Bif Naked and sketch comedian and Amazing Race Canada participant Ryan Steele.
The open house is also a donations drive for the organization's holiday grocery program, which serves more than 800 clients. A "wish list" of food items is detailed on the AIDS Vancouver website.