HIV/AIDS doesn’t have nearly the same profile it did 20 years ago, but don’t tell that to Manitoba’s aboriginal population.
According to recent figures from the Public Health Agency of Canada, aboriginal people represent eight per cent of all Canadians living with HIV/AIDS even though they comprise just 3.8 per cent of the total population. People of First Nations, Inuit and Métis descent also represent 12.5 per cent of new HIV infections across the country every year.
But nearly three decades after HIV and AIDS entered the public vernacular, there should be no excuses for a lack of education or ignorance about prevention and treatment, activists say.
"The HIV test came along in 1984. How long should it take?" asked Albert McLeod, co-director of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba Inc., an organization that represents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members of the aboriginal community.
"Front-line people know the issues and what needs to be done. Our leaders know the issues. They need to do what they’re trained to do. People are not getting that proper treatment, and that is their right," he said.
The Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN) sponsored a conference on HIV/AIDS in the aboriginal community Saturday at the Delta Hotel. More than 125 delegates heard from elders, health-industry experts and politicians about the growing danger of the disease, particularly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, which have the highest incidence in the country.
Art Zoccole, chairman of CAAN, said there are 6,800 aboriginal people living with HIV/AIDS in Canada, a figure that includes 390 new cases from 2011.
"More than one aboriginal person becomes HIV-positive every day in Canada," he said.
The disease is spread in a variety of ways, including unsanitary intravenous drug use and unprotected sex, both in the heterosexual and homosexual communities, he said.
"Talking about sex among aboriginal people is very difficult," he said.
Zoccole, who is gay, said he contracted HIV in 2004, but due to a lifestyle that includes eating and sleeping well, avoiding alcohol and drugs and taking his anti-viral medication, the disease is now undetectable in his system.
"I need to say I’m HIV-positive so I can make a difference in someone else’s life," he said.