After the U.S.Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published the first mention of what was later determined to be HIV in the spring of 1981, politicians and the public began to grapple with how to respond to the virus both medically and emotionally.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan famously did not publicly mention AIDS, the most severe phase of HIV infection, until 1985. By that time, more than 5,000 people had died from AIDS, and thousands more would die over the next three decades.
The public response was laced with misunderstandings, crude jokes and genuine fear about AIDS, a disease that badly damages the immune system, making patients vulnerable to other serious infections.
“We’ve come along way,” said Kate Underwood, a public health nurse with the Huron County Health Unit.
“Even though there’s no cure for HIV, we do know that with proper treatment and connecting people with the right supports,that most people with HIV will avoid getting AIDS … and the individuals stay healthy and live a very long life.”
With that message in mind, health unit staff will be distributing red scarves on the streets of Seaforth on Nov. 30, as part of Canadian HIV/AIDS Awareness Week.
Red scarves will be placed on light posts and benches and handed out to passersby on Main Street, to raise awareness of the advances made in HIV treatment and to combat stigma.
“HIV is something that I think a lot of people kind of assume is no longer a prevalent issue,” said Underwood, who is leading the health unit’s red scarf initiative this year.
“We know that every three hours a person is diagnosed with HIV in Canada, but there’s been a lot of really positive advancements in regards to treatment and prevention, and really improving the lives of anybody who has HIV, or is impacted by it.”
This will be the fifth year of Huron County’s involvement in the larger Red Scarf movement,which started in 2012 with the installation of hundreds of red scarves in downtown London and Stratford by London-based Regional HIV/AIDS Connection.
Huron previously had Red Scarf events in Clinton, Exeter, Wingham and Goderich, hoping to spark a dialogue about HIV infection, which can now be treated to the point it is undetectable in a patient’s bloodstream and untransmittable to their partners.
“The fact that people infected with HIV who are virally suppressed cannot sexually transmit the virus to others is now accepted in theHIV/AIDS community as a result of accumulating evidence since the early 2000s,”said the author of an editorial in the Lancet medical journal last year.
The red scarf isa symbol of awareness and support for people living with HIV/AIDS, similar to the red ribbon that became prevalent in awareness campaigns in the 1990s.
About 63,000Canadians are living with HIV today, but about 14 per cent of people with the virus are unaware of their status, said Underwood.
“We want to make sure we keep the conversation going and encourage people to get tested,” she said.
The health unit recommends HIV testing at least once a year through its sexual health clinics, or through a family doctor or nurse practitioner. A walk-in clinic in Exeter also offers HIV testing.
“If the result had come back positive, then we would work with each individual to make a plan that suits them, and to get them connected to different support groups and specialists that work specifically within HIV.”
If a person has a new partner or is experiencing symptoms of HIV infection, they should be tested, said Underwood.
Common early symptoms of HIV infection include fever, fatigue, chills, sore throat, headache, muscle aches, joint pain and swollen glands.
The symptoms of HIV infection can last from several days to weeks and may go away on their own, according to Health Canada.
During the first two to four weeks of infection, some tests may not be able to detect the virus, but people who are HIV-positive can still pass the virus to others during this time.
“Many sexually transmitted infections do not show symptoms, so it is important for regular testing,” said Underwood.
Some people may not experience any symptoms for up to 10 years, Health Canada said on its website.
This year’s Red Scarf campaign is built around the slogan “Know HIV. No stigma.”
“I think it’s really around increasing that knowledge,” said Underwood.
“We know there’s no cure for HIV, but there’s been so many positive advancements in regard to treatment and care that even if a person does have HIV, they can live a really healthy, happy, long life.”
All are welcome to take red scarves from health unit staff in Seaforth on Nov. 30, or from locations around town.
“They will remain on lampposts, benches, etc., until the last one is taken,” said Underwood.