The Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre hosted a conference on HIV/AIDS awareness in Moricetown recently in the hopes of stemming the tide against the disease in First Nations communities.
“The prevalence of HIV in First Nations communities in northern BC is growing at a much faster rate than in non-aboriginal communities,” program director with the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre, Genevieve Poirier said.
“Especially among people aged 25 and under, particularly women.”
The conference focused on several key areas, including education on transmission of the HIV virus, around which First Nations youth have little knowledge.
“The biggest myth is you can get HIV through saliva or from hugging,” Shannon Froehlich, positive prevention coordinator with Positive Living North Society in Prince George, said.
“They also don’t understand that it’s 100 per cent preventable.”
Froehlich also visits schools to discuss HIV and finds students are often caught by surprise their behaviour puts them at risk of contracting HIV.
“Especially when we say HIV can be contracted through oral sex,” Froehlich explained.
“They [students] think oral sex is safe sex, but it’s possible to contract HIV through oral sex.”
Poirier also visits schools, teaming up with Marylin Morrison who delivers a HIV 101 course in regional schools.
In addition, Poirier has all kinds of resources available for anyone wanting more information, including information from the BC Centre for Disease Control, the Aboriginal AIDS Task Force, the Front Line workers and the Positive Living North Society which has an office in Smithers.
Another important topic covered by the conference is the stigma and discrimination attached to individuals with HIV/AIDS.
“Many people with HIV are discriminated against, by their families, by their communities when they come home,” Poirier said.
The attitudes towards people with HIV is the same in aboriginal communities as in non-aboriginal communities, Froehlich said, but explained because aboriginal communities tend to be much smaller, it is more difficult for someone with HIV to live in a community without everyone knowing about their disease.
In some cases, the discrimination is so severe, individuals with HIV have been asked to leave, in some cases the decision was made by band and council, Poirier said.
“They need to lead by example and welcome community members with HIV back into their communities,” Froehlich said.
“That’s one reason we’re really pushing education in First Nations communities so that they understand the support and love a person with HIV needs.”
Much of the stigma comes from the myth that people with HIV are gay or heavy drug users, Froehlich said.
“When AIDS first arrived on scene it was viewed as a gay man’s disease.”
But today that is no longer the case.
In fact, many of the people Froehlich deals with contracted HIV through unprotected heterosexual sex, dirty needles and even in fights that drew blood.
To help drive their message home, Poirier and Froehlich invited members of the Front Line Warriors, a group of aboriginal and non-aboriginal people living with HIV, in some cases for more than 20 years.
There message, stay in school and be safe, based in a lifetime of experience, resonates with the students, Froehlich said.
For Poirier, who took the lead on the community’s HIV/AIDS awareness program last September, her message is also based on personal experience.
“I decided to take the lead because I lost a sister-in-law to HIV,” Poirier explained with a heavy sigh.
“I got to see what a person with full-blown AIDS looks like. It’s not pretty.”
Poirier recounts her first visit with her sister-in-law when she was finally hospitalized, a difficult moment.
“I walked in, looked at her and had to walk right back out and I cried,” she admitted.
“She didn’t look like herself, she looked like a walking dead person.”
For information on HIV/AIDS contact 250-847-5211