Twenty-two years ago, when Scott Gary Major was first diagnosed with HIV, public opinion surrounding the disease in Canada was distorted with homophobia, misinformation and fear.
Things have improved since then. Fewer people are "afraid of me," he told CTV News.
HIV / AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence, and Major says it makes a difference in the way it is viewed, "because it's … comparable to other easily treatable diseases."
However, when Canada touches 31st World AIDS Day, health organizations across the country are sounding the alarm that there is still stigma surrounding the disease – and that thousands of people are still struggling despite the disease. left the headlines largely.
December 1 is World AIDS Day and the start of Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week. The first reported AIDS case in Canada was in 1982, according to the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research. The first World AIDS Day was held in 1988, at a time when politicians didn't even say HIV out loud.
More than 60,000 Canadians are living with HIV / AIDS today. In 2018, HIV-related causes killed about 770,000 people worldwide.
In Montreal – where 10,000 people live with HIV – a new advertising campaign is coming to subway stations and social media to raise awareness.
The campaign features videos that display a false and damaging assumption about HIV and correct it, using the slogan "the most dangerous thing about HIV is stigma."
"We wanted something bold, so we'll be on the subway everywhere," said Sarah-Amelie Mercure of Montreal Public Health. "(We) want people to spread the word HIV is not what it was."
Misinformation leads to the stigma that still surrounds HIV. People living with HIV / AIDS have often been ostracized by their communities in the past due to homophobia and disproportionate fear about contracting the disease.
Many of these misconceptions are still common today, even in countries like Canada. A 2018 survey by the Canadian Public Health Agency showed that more than one in five Quebecers had the impression that they could contract HIV simply by being in the presence of a person living with the disease – a fear that is not based on reality .
"A quarter of Canadians said they won't have a hairdresser living with HIV," said Sarah-Amelie Mercure of Montreal Public Health. "There is no risk, there was never a risk."
HIV cannot be spread by touch, or by things like kissing, hugging, sharing food, using public restrooms or mosquito bites.
And with medical advances, those living with HIV who are receiving treatment and maintaining an undetectable viral load "have no risk of transmitting HIV to their sexual partners," according to Canada Health.
This is known as the U = U campaign, short for Undetectable = not transferable, an innovative recognition based on years of research. Canada was the first country to officially endorse the U = U campaign in 2018.
Brock Dumville of REZO, a Montreal-based organization that supports gay and bisexual men, said that while "advances in treatment and prevention are enormous," he does not always feel that there is sufficient awareness.
"I think our thinking has not really been updated since the 1980s," he told CTV News Montreal.
AN statement from the Public Health Agency of Canada On Sunday, he pointed to the role of community organizations in fighting discrimination and improving the lives of people living with the disease.
In British Columbia, the Ministry of Health said in a press release on Sunday that there were 208 new cases of the virus in 2018, continuing a steady decline of 437 cases in 2004 – a trend the Ministry attributed to the work of the BC Center for Excellence HIV / AIDS as well as other local health advocates.
"Advances in treatment and prevention, along with education, awareness, community work, and fighting stigma, have made major strides towards eliminating this epidemic," Prime Minister John Horgan said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Ottawa AIDS Committee says that easier access to testing and education is still needed despite the disease's decline.
Chief Executive Khaled Salam said he was concerned that the general public is now aware that HIV does not have to be fatal and that there are "medicines that keep you healthy and (give you) normal life expectancy," those who are at risk of transmitting the disease may have "a sense of complacency when it comes to the transmission of HIV and AIDS."
The 2019 celebration of World AIDS Day is also remarkable because of how close we are to the end of the decade – and the health-related goals of HIV / AIDS that Canada has agreed to achieve by then.
In 2014, the United Nations Joint Program on HIV / AIDS, known as UNAIDS, announced goals 90-90-90, which aimed to reach 90% of people with HIV / AIDS being diagnosed, 90% of people diagnosed on treatment and 90% of people on treatment achieved viral suppression by 2020.
The ultimate goal is to have eliminated HIV / AIDS by 2030.
An article published this year in AIDS Online analyzed data from 2018 from 170 countries to see where they were 90-90-90 and found that of the 37.9 million people living with HIV worldwide, about 53% had received viral suppression treatment and 15 countries had already reached the viral suppression target by 2018.
According CATIE.ca information, a Canadian site dedicated to AIDS and hepatitis C awareness, in 2018 Canada reached 89% of diagnosed, 81% of those diagnosed on treatment – and 91% on treatment that reached an undetectable viral load, which means that Canada has reached least one of the three goals.
Reducing stigma will be key to completely defeating the disease, adds Mercure.
"We need to stop being afraid of people living with HIV," said Mercure. "There are good treatments now and people who take medicines no longer transmit the virus."
Major said he felt "very blessed" to have witnessed the "change in illness and public reaction" over the years.
"We hope that maybe one day … we won't have to celebrate a World AIDS Day anymore, because it just doesn't exist," he said.