HIV/AIDS still lives in the Yukon

There are many people in the Yukon who have HIV but don't talk about it, says Helen Tizya. Tizya was diagnosed with the virus when she was 16. Twenty years later, she's noticed the shame associated with HIV hasn't disappeared.

There are many people in the Yukon who have HIV but don’t talk about it, says Helen Tizya.

Tizya was diagnosed with the virus when she was 16.

Twenty years later, she’s noticed the shame associated with HIV hasn’t disappeared.

“There’s still a lot of people that don’t have education about it,” said Tizya.

“Even my brother is scared of the disease in some ways.”

Next week, Tizya will speak at the city’s annual Scotiabank Walk for Life, a fundraising event for HIV/AIDS.

By now, many of the people in her life know about her condition.

It wasn’t always that way.

At first, Tizya avoided going out with people or lied about having HIV.

Moving to a new community was especially hard, she said.

“I’d find that there were people that didn’t know me, but knew about my HIV,” she said.

“Since living here (in the Yukon) for 10 years it doesn’t really affect me anymore.”

Some days are better than others for Tizya, but she’s learned to manage the virus and take better care of herself.

But she’s still at the mercy of modern medicine.

“I’ve tried all the pills out there,” she said.

She’s worried that she’s running out of options.

“My doctor told me that if this last round of pills doesn’t work I may be in trouble,” she said.

“There may not be other pills out there I can take.”

She’s not hopeful she’ll see a cure for HIV in her lifetime.

With cancer rates continuing to rise, HIV/AIDS has dropped off many people’s radars in the last decade.

“People aren’t aware that HIV is still a disease in our community,” said Blood Ties Four Directions executive director Patricia Bacon.

The non-profit advocates and raises awareness about people living with HIV/AIDS.

“Many high schoolers in the Yukon think there’s a vaccine or cure for it – there isn’t.”

And even though it’s been more than two decades since the AIDS crisis exploded, risk of infection is still a concern.

The Yukon has the perfect conditions for HIV/AIDS to thrive in, said Bacon.

There’s plenty of young, transient people in the territory, a large First Nation population and visible poverty and drug use.

These are all determining factors in Canada’s HIV infection rate, which totaled 64,800 cases between 1985 and 2007.

It’s estimated that up to 4,500 new cases of infection are reported each year in Canada.

In the Yukon the numbers aren’t as staggering, but they don’t tell the whole picture, said Bacon.

There have only been 53 positive HIV tests reported in the territory.

But there are more people than that living in the Yukon with HIV/AIDS, said Bacon.

Many people get tested in larger southern communities.

“There’s a reluctance to getting tested in a small community,” said Bacon.

There’s also a large transient population in the territory.

Tizya herself was in Vancouver when she discovered she had HIV after sharing a dirty needle with someone.

“Life gets a lot harder for people living with HIV,” said Bacon.

“Even the person who can access medicare has many other problems they have to deal with.”

It can be really expensive to find housing and pay for the nutritional supplements you need when you’re sick, she said.

Some people can’t work with HIV while others came from an impoverished background to begin with.

“People that are homeless are three to nine times more likely to get infected,” said Bacon.

And then there’s the stigma.

HIV/AIDS is still taboo for a lot of people.

“There’s people who are at risk but aren’t getting tested because they can’t bear the idea that their family may reject them or that they may lose their jobs,” said Bacon.

“We don’t necessarily know how to support people with HIV in respectful, compassionate ways,” she said.

Unlike cancer, HIV/AIDS doesn’t automatically breed sympathy from the wider community.

“It’s hard for people to be compassionate to someone who has gotten AIDS from sticking a needle in their arm,” said Bacon.

“But we’ve got to stop being a society that is only compassionate to people who lead virtuous lives.”

The Scotiabank Walk for Life happens Wednesday, September 15 at 12 p.m. at LePage Park.

Donations can be made online at http://www.aidswalkforlife.ca/Whitehorse.htm or in person at Blood Ties Four Directions.

Contact Vivian Belik at

vivianb@yukon-news.com

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