Getting to Zero

HIV Edmonton celebrates 30 years, but the organization won’t rest until HIV and AIDS are eliminated

In the early days, Edmonton seemed safe. It was the early 1980s, and while tens of thousands of people in North America were dying of a poorly understood disease called AIDS, they were all in major cities.

Michael Phair, a well-known gay activist and community organizer, says he figured Edmonton was just “too cold” for the disease to get a foothold. And then, in 1984, former bronze medal swimmer at the very first Gay Games, gay activist and Edmontonian Ross Armstrong was diagnosed with the disease. Phair gathered together a group of close friends who formed a plan of how the city’s gay and lesbian community could tackle the issue. The AIDS Network of Edmonton was born that day. This year the organization – now known as HIV Edmonton – celebrates its 30th anniversary.

A lot has changed. Armstrong died just two years after his diagnosis. He wasn’t the only one. “Everyone we worked with died,” Phair says. By 1995, more than 8,000 Canadians had died.

In the mid-90s, the discovery of anti-retroviral drugs meant people could now live with HIV for decades with a high quality of life. Laura Keegan, HIV Edmonton’s Director of Resource Development and Public Engagement, says that meant the organization had to shift its focus. “To better reflect the time, we used HIV instead of AIDS because it became about people living with HIV and fewer dying of AIDS.”

There are fewer deaths from AIDS, but transmission rates for HIV have been increasing in Alberta. According to a 2013 report from the province, there were 112 new cases of HIV that year, up from 105 in 2012 and 98 in 2011.

Prevention, Keegan says, has become a marketing challenge. “We say ‘Protect yourself, you really don’t want to contract HIV; but if you do, it’s okay, because there’s treatment and you can live a full life.'” It can be challenging to both avoid HIV stigma while stressing that it’s still a serious and preventable disease that can destroy lives. HIV seeks out the most vulnerable in our society: those struggling with depression, poverty and addiction along with stigma and isolation.

Earlier this year, HIV Edmonton worked with local advertising firm Calder Bateman to launch the online initiative, HIV Tonight. Funded in part by Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF), the website focuses on gay and bisexual men and uses raunchy humour to emphasize the importance of getting tested for HIV.

Craig Stumpf-Allen, ECF’s Director of Grants and Community Engagement, says statistics around HIV diagnosis and transmission were a large factor in approving the funding. Many people erroneously believe that those who have been diagnosed with HIV are almost certain to transmit the disease. In fact, people who know they are HIV positive and are receiving treatment are much less likely to spread the infection than those who aren’t aware they have it.

Stumpf-Allen says he’s heard good things from the community about how the website has started conversations about HIV. “It’s quite different from what the normal approach is. It’s pretty in your face. It’s fun, it’s realistic, and it’s addressing the actual issues that are part of the conversation these days.”

Keegan believes that eliminating HIV and AIDS is possible. That’s HIV Edmonton’s goal: zero new HIV infections, zero stigma and discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths. “We know exactly how to prevent it, we know exactly how to treat it, and the treatment is hugely successful,” she says.

In addition to their 30th anniversary, this year also marks the 25th anniversary of the AIDS Walk for Life, taking place on September 17, 2016. The walk is a major fundraising event for HIV Edmonton, allowing them to continue their march toward zero.