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Lo's Blog — Wednesday is World Aids Day

Lauren Galbraith
By Lauren Galbraith
December 1st, 2010

 L.V. Rogers grad Lauren Galbraith is currently in Kigali, Rwanda on a six-month placement in the land-locked, east-African country of Rwanda.

During the placement, which runs from September to February, Galbraith will be teaching, working and learning in the Biomedical Laboratory Sciences department of the Kigali Health Institute in the capital city.

It was through the Coady International Institute and St. Francis Xavier University that Galbraith received this internship, which is funded by the Canadian International Development Agency.

The 22 year-old is a 2006 LVR grad this spring completed studies at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. The former Nelson Youth Soccer star and all-round athlete will be sharing her adventures for The Nelson Daily.

Check Galbraith’s thoughts about her Rwanda vacation on the blog page.

November was a month that had me traveling around the beautiful country of Rwanda, hiking up volcanoes in Volcanoes National Park and tracking a family of silverback mountain gorillas.

These touristy activities are the opportunity of a lifetime that often only the most fortunate people have the chance to do. Anyone visiting Rwanda from the Western world no doubt can look forward to these experiences, and I guarantee that some people reading this have even had the pleasure of doing them or maybe know someone who has.

While I share in the awe-inspired feelings after seeing a lake carved out by a once-active volcano as well as a family of 16 endangered primates, I would like to acknowledge a facet of Rwanda that I have witnessed that tourists who have visited East Africa, or Rwanda in particular, may not have had the privilege of seeing.

In light of Wednesday, December 1st being the 22 annual World AIDS Day, I would like to speak about HIV/AIDS, a subject very dear to my heart.

Common misconceptions of the virus in Canada:
“HIV/AIDS is only a problem in Africa, so I don’t need to worry about it here.”
“People with HIV look sick and I am scared to touch them because I might get it.”
“Only homosexual men get HIV.”

My own HIV/AIDS education came about when I was 16 years of age.

One of my high school teachers at LVR was very progressive with her approach to educating us about the social impacts of the virus, bringing in locals in association with ANKORS. These people were HIV positive to talk about the virus with these impressionable students, most of whom would never have had any sort of contact with a person with HIV.

When studying biology at St. Francis Xavier University, I learned in depth about the science behind the virus, however the most important lessons came through my involvement with a student society, Xtending Hope.

This society’s aim was to raise awareness on campus of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, and through this I witnessed both the passion to be informed and the apathy towards the virus of Canadian post-secondary students.

I quickly realized that although students were empathetic towards the situation in Africa, they did not make the connection between the virus in Africa and the virus in North America. It was as if there was no realization that viruses do not discriminate between certain groups of people, they can infect in any geographical setting and people are all susceptible to them.

This was apparent during our ‘Know Your Status’ campaign held at StFX where it was a struggle to implement anonymous HIV testing on our school’s grounds partly because of its Catholic roots. After we were finally given the go ahead to make testing available, only seven students were tested, one of which was myself.

Although this was a huge step for our society, and that meant that there were seven opportunities for HIV/AIDS education and prevention of potentially spreading the disease, the turnout was a bit disheartening given the thorough advertising we did.

Looking back on my secondary education in Nelson, I cannot recall learning about the virus in the most important context: the prevention of transmission. I remember in Career and Personal Planning class in Trafalgar learning about safe sex, condom use, and STIs but not about HIV in particular.

It was as if since 0.3% of the population has the virus, it was not really worth educating about. I beg to differ.

Now that I am in East Africa, the area of the world that has been hit hardest by HIV, consequently I was expecting the level of knowledge to be much greater than that of Canada. Needless to say, I was mind-boggled to hear the following questions:

“Well white people can’t get AIDS, can they?”
“People have access to an HIV vaccine in the Western world, don’t they?”
 “I heard if I have sex with a virgin, I will not get the virus?”

One can see the parallels between the misconceptions about HIV/AIDS in Canada and those here in Rwanda. These are not questions from street people who have never been educated. They come from casual conversation with some of my university-educated Rwandese friends.

Unfortunate really, that in a place where HIV is ten times more prevalent than in Canada, the simplest knowledge of prevention and transmission is absent. Being in Rwanda has brought me closer to the virus, but only slightly. I now have a few friends who are HIV positive, something that I don’t have in Canada.

The campaigns here advertising condom use and safer sex practices are inspiring, as are the number of NGOs whose sole purpose is to educate youth and the general population in order to combat the virus. But then again, you still have people asking questions such as the ones I spoke of above. This lack of knowledge is by no means a problem only in Rwanda, but all over the world.

How can people be so ignorant and misinformed about HIV/AIDS? Easy. Just think about how ‘taboo’ the subject of sex is, and even more so the subject of risky sexual behaviours which lead to the spread of STIs and HIV. This creates stigma surrounding the virus, which is so influential that people do not want to talk about it, thus preventing education about HIV and subsequent attempts to fight the pandemic.

I have heard first hand accounts of people attending churches in Africa where preachers, aside from condemning condom use, say that HIV/AIDS can be cured by praying to God. In the Western world as we heard last week, only now, after almost thirty years since the formal discovery of the virus, is the Pope endorsing the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV.

No wonder HIV is still widely misunderstood.

I have only delved into the sex-related aspects of the virus, which is leaving out a whole other side of infection involving intravenous drug-users, mother to child transmission, and more.

The combination of my attendance at this past summer’s International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria, on behalf of AIDS Free World (an American advocacy organization co-founded by Canada’s own Stephen Lewis) and my recent research into the education of youth about HIV/AIDS/safer sex practices leads me to wonder how many people back home really know their HIV status, or have even considered being tested.

The UNAIDS report released on November 23rd, saying that the spread of the global HIV epidemic is at a standstill, is somewhat deceptive. There are still issues surrounding funding and access to treatment, indicating that there is still a long way to go. The simplest way to combat the disease is to start at home.

So I ask you all to question your own HIV/AIDS and safer sex practices education, and that of your children.

On December 1st, World AIDS Day, I challenge you to ask yourself, do YOU know your status?

Categories: General


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