Turning a mess into a message - World AIDS Day at U of T

This December 1st 2014, I attended my very first U of T World AIDS Day event at the Hart House Great Hall. As I arrived to the event, I received a complimentary AIDS awareness ribbon, and looked down on the event schedule, eager to see how the evening would unfold: a light and refreshing reception followed by musical performances and presentations from distinguished speakers.

The night began with a breathtaking speech by Muluba Habanyama courageously sharing her experience living with HIV. One would have thought losing both her parents to HIV related-illness would have torn this 23 year old apart - but no, she picked herself up and put on a brave face. In her words, she was no longer "angry at the world" and knew she had to move on. Instead of letting her life spiral downwards, she decided to become an HIV/AIDS advocate and an inspiring role model to all. In a 21st century fashion, she turned to YouTube to disclose her HIV positive status and to tackle harsh stigma associated with the disease. Soon after, it caught the attention of the media, as she conducted interviews on Canadian news outlets such as CP24, MTV, and the Toronto Star. What was most remarkable was that she had the brightest smile across her face as she told us her moving story. She ended the night with a very powerful and simple statement, encouraging us all to turn our "mess into a message".

The next two speakers provided us with a first-person medical perspective and hands-on research experience in dealing with the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Dr. Sumeet Sodhi told us about her work with Dignitas International, a small research NGO based in Malawi where she helps provide treatment to teens and pregnant women living with HIV. They help these women cope with daily challenges by providing support through various clubs. Aptly, and coincidentally, these clubs are led by three teens named Grace, Wisdom and Unity.

Next was Dr. Philip Berger, a famous Torontonian health and human rights activist who shared a touching anecdote with us. He told us about Sharon, an old neighbour and patient who fought HIV and a heroin addiction until the day she died. He mentioned the struggles Sharon faced, from discrimination, stigma, to unequal access to services and treatment. Symbolically, he lit a candle during his talk in her memory, both warming our hearts and illuminating the hope and need to find light to conquer this dark pandemic.

The next speaker, Alison Symington, talked about the “Getting to Zero” campaign and the 90-90-90 treatment target selected this year by UNAIDS. It’s an ambitious goal - by 2020, 90% of people with HIV will know their positive status, 90% of those diagnosed will receive treatment, and 90% of those treated will suppress their virus. She pointed out that the only way UNAIDS would reach these goals by 2020, is if we realize that HIV/AIDS has important social as well as medical consequences. She concluded her talk by asserting that what drives this epidemic is more societal than pharmaceutical.

Afterwards, Dr. Ann Stewart, the medical director of Casey House (an HIV/AIDS hospital) provided us with statistics, facts, and charts of one of her patient to illustrate the many complex problems at hand. We found out that a lot of patients suffer from many concurrent infections and psychotic illnesses on top of their HIV status diagnosis.

Finally, the event ended with a couple of words from the evening’s beneficiary – the Teresa Group. They said the number one fear of most of their HIV/AIDS patients is the fear of disclosure . Throughout the night, the audience was constantly reminded to act with kindness and compassion, to fight stigma and to call out ignorance if we want to get to “Zero”. A huge congratulations to the Global Health Engage team for all their hard work in organizing this fantastic event!


"I learned tonight that compassion and empathy is the ultimate way to combat HIV/AIDS stigma. We must all try to take down barriers of access to make a world without HIV/AIDS possible.” – Alex De Pompa, 4th year, English Major

“I enjoyed the musical performances. The artistic paintings and display added a nice touch to the event.” – Fariha H, 3rd year, Biochemistry Major

“The best part of organizing the event was getting to learn more about HIV and AIDS throughout the event's development. Many of our team members have learned about HIV and AIDS in our class lectures but it was incredible to hear the perspectives, experiences, challenges and progress achieved from our speakers and organizations regarding HIV and AIDS, both in Toronto and on a global stage […]”.” –Michael Osmond, Co-Chair, GHE

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