I’m lucky to have been born when I was. Twenty-five years ago I was just a kid. I was blissfully unaware during the height of the AIDS epidemic. I didn’t have to watch friend after friend succumb to nasty opportunistic diseases. I didn’t have to watch over them, worry about them, imagine what my life would look like without them.
For my generation AIDS has always been present. It was there when we did sex ed in grade school. It was there in the sex talk I got from my mom. When I first started having sex it was what I worried about most. But somewhere between university, when my first friend tested positive, and today when many of my friends have been positive for more than a decade, the threat of AIDS has lost its sting.
Like the majority of folks I’ve become complacent. I worry more about AIDS infection rates in Africa where antiretroviral drugs are so much harder to come by than I do about the infection rates among my friends. Obviously I don’t want any of us to become infected but if we do I know it’s no longer the automatic death sentence it once was.
This complacency is the only reason I can think of to explain the way we’ve been letting the Conservative government fail us when it comes to the fight against HIV and AIDS.
This fall the federal government cut more than $1 million from community-based AIDS organizations in Ontario, putting harm-reduction and support programs at risk. This money was part of the Federal Initiative on HIV and AIDS approved in 2004 with a plan to double funding from $42.4 million annually to $84.4 million annually by 2008, and while the Tories were not in power when it was approved they did support it. In fact the Conservatives were part of the all-party parliamentary committee that recommended that funding be increased to $100 million annually (turn to page 9 for more on the cuts).
That Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s federal government is failing Canadians when it comes to funding for HIV/AIDS initiatives probably comes as no surprise. After all Harper showed just how much he cares about the disease and the millions of people affected by it when he failed to show up for the International AIDS Conference in August 2006.
Even so it was unbelievably devious of the federal Conservatives to divert money from community HIV/AIDS projects in order to funnel it into a sexy new vaccine research initiative. Out of the $139 million for the initiative, announced with much fanfare last February, it turns out at least $26 million of it will be coming out of existing projects. How does that make sense? Is the hope of a vaccine for tomorrow more valuable than HIV-prevention projects today? What about the people who become infected between now and when a vaccine becomes available, assuming it ever does? What about the people already living with HIV and AIDS?
AIDS isn’t the threat it used to be but it’s no walk in the park either. Although they’ve come a long way the drugs used to treat people living with HIV, to keep them living relatively healthy normal lives, come at a cost. Short-term side effects of antiretrovirals can include severe nausea, vomiting, kidney stones, disfiguring fat redistribution and depression — side effects that may themselves require more drugs. The financial cost can be thousands of dollars a month and while Ontario Disability Support Program covers most drugs it also comes with strings that keep many living in poverty.
Then there’s the question of long-term effects. Leading up to World AIDS Day on Dec 1 I heard from a handful of long-term survivors. Four were the speakers who shared their stories at the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation’s recent talk We’re Still Here (check out Xtra.ca for video coverage). After learning about long-term effects of some of the admittedly lifesaving drugs — which can include heart disease, kidney and liver problems — I fear there may come a time when long-term survivors begin dying off not of AIDS-related illness but of AIDS-drug-related illnesses.
In the face of all of this, in the face of increasing infection rates among men who have sex with men in Ontario and among young people in Toronto, we must shake off our own complacency and demand better of our government. Funding for HIV/AIDS projects isn’t something we can allow to be juggled.