What do we think about HIV/AIDS?

Health Matters

What do Canadians know about HIV/AIDS? And what do they think about the disease?

These are not simply interesting questions, but rather, one more tool in slowing the progression of HIV/AIDS and improving the quality of life of people living with the disease. To that end, National Attitudinal Surveys have been conducted, first in 2003 and 2006 to establish a baseline, then most recently in 2012. The surveys attempt to measures Canadians’ awareness, knowledge, attitudes and behaviours related to HIV/AIDS.

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HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, resulting in chronic, progressive illness that can leave people vulnerable to infections. Fortunately, the virus is also frail: it cannot survive long outside the human body and does not transmit easily aside from some very specific behaviour.

High risk behaviours include unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse, sharing needles for injecting drugs or steroids, mother-to-child transmission in utero, during birth and while breastfeeding. On the other hand, despite myths to the contrary, HIV cannot be transmitted by shaking hands or hugging, coughing or sneezing, using toilet seats or door knobs, mosquito bites, sharing eating utensils or at the water fountain.

Many Canadians think they know and they understand HIV/AIDS sufficiently; that is a fallacy. One of the surprising findings of the attitudinal survey is that compared to other diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, HIV/AIDS is not perceived to be a particularly serious disease in Canada today.

The survey also found that our knowledge of the specifics of HIV/AIDS has waned since 2003. For example, fewer people know that a person can have HIV for 10 or more years without developing AIDS. And a decreasing number of Canadians are able to correctly identify some of the main ways that HIV is transmitted. Some 87 percent of Canadians consider their risk of contracting HIV as low — there is a strong perception that “HIV/AIDS is another person’s disease.”

Attitudes to the disease are interesting as well. A strong majority of Canadians believe that they would be highly supportive of someone with HIV/AIDS, but this support weakens as the relationship becomes more distant. And although they would be supportive and understanding themselves, Canadians believe that the stigmatizing beliefs associated with HIV/AIDS have significant repercussions for people living with the disease. Indeed, 69 per cent believe that people would be unwilling to tell others they have HIV/AIDS because of the stigma associated with this disease.

Results show that few Canadians acknowledge holding discriminatory beliefs about people with HIV/AIDS. Almost all Canadians believe that people living with HIV/AIDS have the same right to health care as they do (95 per cent); the same right to housing (94 per cent); and that people living with HIV/AIDS have the same right to employment as they do (90 per cent). However, when Canadians are asked whether individuals with HIV/AIDS should be allowed to serve in public positions such as hairstylists or dentists, there is broader disagreement.

Knowing everything we can about HIV/AIDS makes the disease less mysterious and gives fewer people the idea that there should be a stigma attached. We have a long ways to go yet — hopefully we can all become better informed.

Editor’s note: Dr. Paul Martiquet is the medical health officer for rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.

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