From November 23 to December 1st, the University of Toronto campus joined with local, national, and international agencies in one of the world's largest public health campaigns: World AIDS Week. Students from various faculties and programs organized bake sales, myth-busting trivia, and public lectures that engaged the student body in an open and vital conversation about HIV/AIDS, a disease that currently affects over 75,000 Canadians, with nearly one third of new infections occurring among those in their twenties.
World AIDS Week takes on a particular significance in our city: 1 in 120 Torontonians are currently living with the virus that causes AIDS, and the GTA accounts for two-thirds of HIV cases across all of Ontario. The first AIDS Awareness Week was organized by the AIDS Committee of Toronto in 1984, and it has since transformed into a provincial and national event aimed at eliminating stigma and advancing healthcare for persons living with HIV
while preventing new infections through education. This year's theme was "Getting to Zero", and reflects the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)' vision for a world where there are zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination of persons living with HIV, and zero AIDS-related deaths. The past week's events were a celebration of the tremendous advancements made over the past decade, but also a reminder that there is still much work to be done.
The Global Medicines Initiative (GMI) of the Faculty of Pharmacy held a week-long bake sale in the Pharmacy atrium in support of CANFAR— the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research. A student-led group, GMI promotes awareness and education regarding
issues and policies that influence international access to life-saving medications, including anti-retroviral therapy. In addition to selling delicious matcha cheesecake and other homemade goodies, students held a photo booth and distributed facts to mitigate stigma and help students protect themselves from HIV infection. The GMI placed first in a charity "bake-off" between other clubs in their faculty, and donated their proceeds to advance research in all aspects of HIV and AIDS through CANFAR.
Other student groups hosted similar events to educate, inspire and engage students in local and global challenges related to HIV and AIDS. Engineering World Health, a student group committed to improving health in low and middle income countries, hosted an information night for students interested in a meaningful volunteer opportunity abroad. Through the Service Abroad Program, students from any faculty travel to Nicarauga, Rwanda, or Tanzania where they will repair and restore broken medical equipment in low-service areas. A taco and cupcake sale in support of Dignitas International featured a red-themed photo booth, jeopardy-style trivia, and a cinnamon hearts challenge. Dignitas International is a medical and research organization fighting to promote the right to health in the poorest corners of the world. The UofT chapter of Oxfam held a week-long bake sale that included trivia and prizes for students. Oxfam is an international confederation dedicated to creating lasting solutions to poverty and injustice, particularly for women and girls— themes that also underpin the HIV pandemic.
The main event of the week took place in the Great Hall of Hart House on Tuesday, December 1st, also known as World AIDS Day. The free event, organized by UTHIP Global Health Engage, was an evening of music and inspiring presentations by a number of distinguished guests. It was an evening that honoured the past and the remarkable advances in rights and healthcare for persons living with HIV since the first Canadian case was reported over thirty years ago. Dr. Phillip Berger, a physician, activist, and associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine shared the stories of patients he cared for in the earlier years of the epidemic, before the advent of effective therapies that slow the progression of HIV to AIDS. His account highlighted how stigma, poverty, and limited access to healthcare shape the experiences of patients with HIV and AIDS. Most importantly, Dr. Berger illustrated the profound ways that simple kindnesses can restore hope for those affected by the disease, and the various ways health care providers can become agents of real change on both a personal and a policy level.
Alison Symington, Co-Director at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network spoke to how legal and societal barriers prevent scientific advancements from translating into the creation of safer and healthier communities. Vanessa Van Schoor of Doctors Without Borders shared her experiences in Malawi as an example of how those directly affected by the pandemic, particularly youth, are invaluable team members in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the most under-served communities. Muluba Habanyama, a national youth ambassador for CANFAR, embodied this theme when she shared her story of resilience and hope as a young person living— and thriving— with HIV. One year ago, Maluba (who currently studies journalism at Sheridan College) courageously disclosed her HIV status through a YouTube video entitled "Feel No Shame". Like millions of children throughout the world, Maluba was born with the virus that causes AIDS. After nearly succumbing to complications related to HIV as a young teen, Maluba has benefited from access to antiretroviral therapy and stands today as a strong, vivacious advocate with a hopeful vision for the future. If Dr. Berger's talk was a reminder to be kind to one another, Maluba's was a reminder to be kind to ourselves, for that is the first step in tearing down the stigma related to HIV. As a first year medical student, I was moved and energized by those who shared their stories on December 1st. I am humbled by the strength and resolve of advocates and healthcare workers like Dr. Berger, and so grateful to live in a time where patients like Maluba are well enough to share their message with the world.
For more information HIV/AIDS, and ways to get involved with incredible community organizations, check out the links below!
Casey House: A specialty hospital in Toronto providing compassionate palliative and supportive care for people living with HIV or AIDS.
Dignitas International: An international medical and research organization dedicated to improving health care for people facing a high burden of disease and unequal access to services.
Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network: They promote human rights of people living with and vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, in Canada and internationally, through research and analysis, advocacy and litigation, public education and community mobilization.
The Teresa Group: The Teresa Group is Canada’s oldest community-based charitable organization specifically serving children affected by HIV and AIDS and their families.
Canadian Coalition for Global Health Research: CCGHR is a not-for-profit organization promoting better and more equitable health worldwide through the production and use of knowledge.