Ryerson Stands with #BlackLivesMatterTO

blmto

http://theeyeopener.com/2016/04/ryerson-students-march-with-blm-to/

Garnering a lot of media attention lately has been Toronto’s very own Black Lives Matter movement. A very pertinent social justice issue of our time, the Black Lives Matter movement holds its roots in our neighbouring country, the United States, where the current racial climate is centred on the persecution of the members of the black community. There have been numerous injustices involving the various police officers in different states of America, wrongly persecuting black individuals, namely, young black men. Unfortunately, for the majority, the result has been death for these wrongly persecuted individuals. This has led to a revolution in the black community; the Black Lives Matter activists used their voices to speak out on such injustices and bring honor to the fallen people of their community. They have protested various streets in the United States, asking government officials and police department officials to end the racial profiling and racial discrimination. The powerful voices of the Black Lives Matter movement in the States has been heard all around the world – including our very own neighbourhood, Toronto.

The Black Lives Matter Toronto – Coalition was is made up of Black Torontonians working in solidarity with various communities in our local streets of Toronto to work towards a common goal: social justice. This group has acknowledged the deep racial discrimination and stigmatization that black communities in the States have been going through, and have noticed similar patterns of behaviour in our very own neighbourhood. Currently, the Black Lives Matter Toronto activists have been fighting for justice for the death of Andrew Loku.

Andrew Loku was a 45 year old man, living in an apartment building on Eglinton Ave. W and Caledonia Ave. On the evening of July 4, 2015, Andrew was disturbed in his sleep by a significantly loud noise from his upstairs neighbours. He asked them continuously to minimize the noise, so that he can be able to sleep, but the noise persisted. Overwhelmed by the loud noise, and being unable to sleep, Loku grabbed a hammer and began banging it against the apartment hallway doors and walls. The police were called to address this particular noise. Within seconds of the police officer’s arrivals, a police officer shot Andrew Loku twice, killing him in the hallway of his apartment building.

Andrew Loku was regarded by all those who knew him as a kind and friendly man. He was a husband and a father to five children, and lived alone in Toronto, while working to bring his family to Canada from where they currently live in South Sudan. He graduated from George Brown College in the construction program, and worked various jobs to make ends meet for himself and for his family back in South Sudan.

The Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition has challenged the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) to release the name of the officer who shot Andrew Loku, having not been in immediate danger or threat himself. The identity of the officer has remained un-released while the SIU investigates logistics of the situation – such as whether or not officers were notified that the building in which they were responding to, the building that Andrew Loku resided in, was leased by the Canadian Mental Health Association. This apartment complex offered affordable housing services for people suffering with a mental illness. The Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition have worked tirelessly in protest, rain or shine – snow or sun, to plead to government officials, such as Toronto Mayor John Tory and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, to address this serious injustice. As such, the officer who fatally shot Andrew Loku has not yet been charged for this unjust act nearly a year after his untimely death.

I have had the privilege of visiting the hub of the protests on 40 College Street, where I met protestors from BLM-TO. It was an environment unlike any other. While one would imagine a protest to have quite a tense, aggressive, and hostile energy, the BLM-TO exuded nothing but love and hospitality to all those who observed and/or joined the protest. There was food, water, warm blankets, gloves, and hats being passed around to the protestors – not just from amongst one another, but from the on-lookers as well. There were shouts of social justice, peace, and equality. There were cries and pleads of putting an end to racial profiling and discrimination, and a plea to the SIU and the Toronto Police Department to be accountable for their actions. There was music, dancing, motivating speeches, laughter, and deep discussions to honor the valuable black lives lost to racial injustices.

It was a pleasant surprise to see Ryerson students in solidarity with BLM-TO on campus the other day. The march was organized by numerous student groups on campus, in collaboration with BLM-TO, to protest social justice in and around the Ryerson community. With Ryerson being at the very heart of Toronto, it seemed only natural that Ryerson students stand in solidarity with our community. Among the student groups during this march for social justice included the Ryerson East Africans’ Students Association (REASA); Ryerson Student Union (RSU); and the United Black Students at Ryerson (UBSR). During the march, the students in protest used their voices to urge other fellow students to show their support by donating supplies, food, water, warm clothing, etc to the BLM-TO Coalition, to encourage the progression of the protest. Students on campus were eager and receptive to what Ryerson students and BLM-TO had to say, and showed their solidarity with the movement. It was a refreshing and culturally enriching experience to have witnessed – and frankly, it made me even more proud to be a Ram and a Torontonian.

If you would like to donate and show your support and solidarity, BLM-TO can be found here:

Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition Facebook

Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition Twitter

blacklivesmatterTO@gmail.com

40 College Street, Toronto, ON

Resources:

http://news.nationalpost.com/toronto/the-life-and-bloody-death-of-andrew-loku

http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2015/07/07/andrew-lokus-death-by-a-police-bullet-came-quickly-witness-says.html

The Zika Virus: What’s the truth?

With the end of the semester, and the end of another full academic year coming to an end, I’m sure a number of you – myself included – are starting to think about vacation plans. The summer is nearly approaching and students are eager to get out of the classroom and trade the scenery for somewhere warmer, something with a view, and somewhere with lots of sand. That being said, vacation plans can get a little complicated with the current global concern of the Zika Virus. But what exactly is the Zika Virus? Will it affect your plans to go down to the Dominican with your friends? Who does it affect? What can you do to prepare yourself and make sure you’re well-protected on your travels? Whether you’re going down to Brazil itself and spending a lot of time there this summer, or you’re simply travelling anywhere south of the border for any length of time just to catch some sun, being an informed and well-prepared traveller is key. Hopefully, this post will help educate you and prepare you on how to travel smarter and safer.

What is Zika?

Zika is a virus that spread amongst people who are infected by the bite of a mosquito called Aedes. Because this virus is spread through a mosquito, it is called a vector-borne disease. Most people who are infected with the Zika virus experience symptoms characterized by a mild fever, skin rashes, joint pain, conjunctivitis, or headaches. These symptoms typically last anywhere from 2-7 days and can be treated through common prescribed and over-the-counter medication.

This virus was first discovered in 1947 in Uganda. The first discovery of this virus infecting humans was in 1952. Since that first discovery of the initial outbreak, various Zika outbreaks have been reported in various tropical areas in:

  • Africa
  • Southeast Asia
  • Pacific Islands

The current “hub” for the Zika virus – where the most recent outbreak was identified – is in Brazil. Local transmission has been reported around Brazil and has continued to spread to various areas in other countries and territories.

What are the signs and symptoms of Zika?

As mentioned above, the most common signs and symptoms of Zika virus are:

  • Mild fever
  • Skin rashes
  • Joint pain
  • Conjunctivitis (Red eyes)
  • Headaches

The most alarming symptom of Zika – also the reason for its high profile attention – is a condition called Microcephaly. Microcephaly is a birth defect characterized by an unusually smaller head size than what is expected when compared to babies born of that specific age, height, and weight. This occurs primarily due to underdevelopment of the infant’s brain while in the fetus. Microcephaly can lead to other health complications such as:

  • Seizures
  • Developmental Delay
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Problems with Movement and Balance
  • Feeding Problems
  • Hearing Loss
  • Vision Impairment

The most concerning cases of Zika have involved pregnant women who have been infected with the Zika Virus, delivering children who are born with microcephaly. This certain condition has been the reason for international concern concerning this virus.

What can I do to protect myself?

Unfortunately, as of this current moment, there are no known vaccines against the Zika virus. But there are some preventative measures that you can take if you’re traveling to the tropics this summer. These preventative measures are all centred around repelling the mosquito that is responsible for transmitting the virus.

  • Use insect repellent regularly
  • Wear light-coloured clothing that covers as much of the body as possible
  • Use window screens; close the doors; close the windows whenever possible
  • If necessary, use a mosquito net over beds
  • Empty/clean/cover containers that regularly store water
    • Water is a breeding site for mosquitos

If you decide to travel somewhere in the tropics this summer, hopefully this has helped you to be more knowledgeable and better prepared with your travels! Bearing these things in mind will help you to not only protect yourself and prevent transmission to yourself, but hopefully help you protect other travellers around you.

All sources used:

http://www.cdc.gov/zika/index.html

http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/microcephaly.html

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/zika/en/

Global Health Nursing Conference 2016

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On Tuesday, March 15, 2016, I attended the Global Health Nursing Conference held at the University of Toronto, hosted by the Nursing Undergraduate Society at UofT. The purpose and the theme of the conference this year was to shed light on Refugee and Immigrant Health.

This year’s conference is particularly poignant due to the current social climate regarding the war conflicts that have started occurring in 2011 (and are still ongoing) within Syria, and the large influx of Syrian refugees within Canadian borders. Throughout this night, we explored topics related to refugee and immigrant health, and ways in which nurses play a significant role in facilitating access to safe and appropriate for a vulnerable population. The wide variety of panelists, speakers, and session facilitators encompassed a diverse group of registered nurses [RNs] and nurse practitioners [NPs] from a variety of different global health backgrounds. They offered their experiences and perspectives on global health, the impact that nurses can create in health care on a global scale, and the types of work in which nurses can play a part in on an international health care level.

This event garnered significant attention from a variety of different undergraduate nursing students. The evening was comprised of attendees from UofT’s second-entry BScN program, Ryerson’s BScN program, Nippissing, York, etc. It was refreshing to see variety in different nursing backgrounds, making it an optimal night for opportunities to network, meet new people, and make new nursing friends!

The first part of the evening began with a panel of four RN speakers with diverse careers within global health. Some of them worked in various acute care and community health settings in different parts of the world (i.e Sudan, Ethiopa, Sierra Leone), implementing global health initiatives such as surgical programs, vaccination clinics, maternal health education, etc. Some of them worked within the local community (i.e Women’s College Hospital), addressing refugee and immigrant health needs and concerns in the Greater Toronto Area. Having these varied experiences and backgrounds in nursing come to light truly widened perspectives and opened many minds. The nursing students in attendance, a majority of whom have yet to have any solid exposure to global health nursing, were able to think of adequate health care outside of a framework that is well-resourced, highly affluent, and well-supported by a competent government structure. We were forced to think critically about what health care and health care delivery looks like in various populations and cultures, and how we – as Canadian nurses – can use our influence to affect change, in order to improve global health outcomes. Moreover, we also had the opportunity to think critically about how to address global health issues within our own local community. Various speakers spoke about what immigrants – specifically refugees – experience, in terms of health services, once on Canadian soil. We discussed barriers they often face to receiving appropriate care, such as a lack of adequate health care insurance coverage and a lack of unfamiliarity in terms of navigating a new system. The panelists did a fantastic job in articulating that our roles as nurses are to ensure that immigrants and refugees receive a care that is reflective of our health care system’s values and beliefs – that is, a care that is individualized, patient and family-centred, and comprehensive.

 A highlighted global health organization that was brought to attention during this period of the evening was Medicins Sans Frontieres [MSF]/Doctors Without Borders. A number of the RN panelists discussed their own experience in working with this organization and how MSF carries out various global health initiatives in a number of resource deficient countries. The purpose of MSF is to provide medical support and services where it is most needed on a global scale, and to ensure that health care systems and organizations are well-supported and have sufficient resources to deliver adequate care across boarders. More information on MSF and their work, as well as how to get involved, can be found on:

Medicins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders

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The next portion of the evening was a dinner and Social, where we got to engage with the founders of the company iamsick.ca. iamsick.ca is a company that has created a technology platform in the form of an app and a website, to help facilitate access and equity to adequate health services in your own area. They have developed a system whereby one is able to access the most appropriate health care provider, for their specific needs, online. Furthermore, through this system, they are able to minimize things such as emergency visits, wait times, etc., as it specifically matches the individual’s health need with the specific health service and provider that addresses that need. iamsick.ca is a company that began at UofT and has grown over the last four years, with a large number of consumers that have been helped through its services. They work directly with healthcare providers and organizations to ensure that the link between patient and provider is more effectively established. iamsick.ca ensures that health needs do not go unaddressed and are addressed appropriately. For more information on iamsick.ca, please visit:

iamsick.ca

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The last portion of the evening involved Breakout Sessions, from which students were to choose whichever session they would like to partake in, to develop more knowledge in more specific niches of global health nursing. I chose to take part in the Sick Kids International Paediatric Global Health session, due to my interests in maternal and paediatric health. In this last hour of the evening, the Nursing Manager and the Advanced Nursing Practice Educator from Sick Kids International and Sick Kids Centre for Global Child Health spoke about paediatric health and nursing care on a global scale. They spoke about their past, present, and future projects and global health initiatives to address gaps in international paediatric care. A significant gap that they have found in terms of global child health is that nurses internationally lack the advanced competencies of paediatric nursing care, making it difficult for them to deliver the care that their country’s paediatric population requires. Sick Kids Centre for Global Child Health has taken steps towards developing a project that educates nurses abroad about paediatric nursing and paediatric care, in order to empower that country’s health care providers. This project has been a focus for a large part of their work and they hope to continue educating various nurses in various parts of the world, to ensure they receive adequate paediatric nursing education and training. For more information on Sick Kids Centre for Global Child Health, and to learn more about their work, please visit:

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The Hospital for Sick Children – The Centre for Global Child Health

Needless to say, the night was successful and the nursing students in attendance learned a lot about global health and how nursing plays a pivotal role in global health. With Canadian nursing school curriculums having a strong focus on nursing in the local and national community, there is a significant lack in education about the work nurses do on an international and global scale. This conference has definitely enabled nursing students across GTA to develop their knowledge and awareness in global health nursing, and has inspired us to build careers built on the foundation of community health development alongside with acute care development.

Black History Month Spotlight: Mae Jemison

Mae_Jemison_in_Space

As we come to a close on Black History Month, I would like to turn the spotlight on another influential Black female figure: Mae Jemison. Mae Jemison is widely acclaimed in the sciences industry as being the first Black Female astronaut. In 1992, she made significant strides as an astronaut by flying into space on the Endeavour spacecraft, officially establishing herself as the first African-American woman in space.

Born in October 1956, in Decatur, Alabama, Mae Jemison and her family moved to Chicago, Illinois where she grew up for the majority of her youth. There in Chicago, she was able to witness and experience first-hand the peak of the Black civil rights movement in the United States. As a young girl, she lived in fear by the frequent protests and the heavy presence of the National Guard on their streets. At a mere 12 years old, although scared, Mae Jemison knew the importance of the civil rights movement and its impact on herself as an African-American girl and the Black community as a whole. Living through such an experience growing up, Mae Jemison’s African-American identity became a crucial part in her academic and career pursuits.

She spent her life in the pursuit of science – specifically, astrology. Even as a kindergartner on her first day of school, she already declared herself a “scientist” when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Taken aback by her answer as a woman, much less a Black woman, people were skeptical and doubtful. These doubts and odds against her didn’t stop her in her pursuit.

She began her pursuit for higher education in the sciences in college, where she studied physical and social sciences. Jemison developed a passion for linguistics while in college and also learned how to speak Russian and African-Swahili fluently. She progressed in her academic career by earning another degree in chemical engineering and African studies. She always stuck true to her roots as an African-American and ensured that her African identity remained an integral part of who she was in every aspect – both as a student and as a professional in the sciences. Mae Jemison continued on to study medicine in medical school, where she earned her MD and also became a medical doctor.

In June of 1987, she was admitted into NASA’s astronaut program, being the first African-American woman to be admitted into the astronaut-training program. In 1992, Mae Jemison made even more significant strides as an African-American and as a female astronaut by initiating her first launch into space. On September 12, 1992, Mae Jemison set aboard the Endeavour spacecraft among 6 other astronauts on mission STS47. On this day, she officially established herself as the first African-American woman in space.

Mae Jemison spent 8 days in space conducting various projects and experiments in collaboration with the rest of the team of astronauts. She returned back to earth on September 20, 1992 and spent a total of 190 hours in space. Upon her return, Jemison remarked of the importance of both integrating males and females, as well as various minority groups, into societal activities. She emphasized that all kinds of people are able to be productive members of society and contribute to the development of the world, so long as the equal opportunity is afforded to them.

In recognition of her astonishing repertoire of accomplishments, Jemison received numerous awards and several honorary doctorates. Some include:

  • The 1988 Essence Science and Technlogy Award
  • The 1992 Ebony Black Achievement Award
  • The 1993 Montgomery Fellowship from Dartmouth College
  • The 1990 Gamma Sigma Gamma Woman of the Year Award

Mae Jemison was also fundamental in the progression and development of various organizations in the scientific community, including the American Medical Association, the American Chemical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Mae Jemison is not only influential, she is a model of excellence for all people – especially women, African-Americans; particularly African-American women. Her significant work in the STEM fields proves her to be role model for young girls and young women, showing them that women not only can be a part of the STEM fields, but they can also excel in the STEM field. She has paved the way for women to make positive and remarkable contributions into an industry that is primarily dominated my males. As an African-American, she has proven to be a figure of strength and intelligence, proving to society that despite every odd set up against a marginalized population – despite the lack of equal opportunity – resilience, perseverance, and strength can uplift yourself and an entire community from an oppression. Moreover, it can influence society to adopt ideologies that are more inclusive, aware, and integrative, and foster a society that offers equal opportunity to all people, regardless of gender, race, sex, sexuality, etc.

Resources:

http://www.biography.com/people/mae-c-jemison-9542378

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/jemison-mc.html

http://teacher.scholastic.com/space/mae_jemison/

http://www.biography.com/people/mae-c-jemison-9542378

Black History Month Spotlight: Maryann Elizabeth Francis

Francis

As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, this week, we focus the spotlight on another strong Black Canadian female figure. Mayann Elizabeth Francis was born in Sydney, Nova Scotia and came from parents who hailed from Cuba (her father) and Antigua (her mother). She had strong roots in the church, being brought up and raised surrounded by strong religious influences, especially due to the fact that her father was the archpriest of the African Orthodox Church.

Mayann Elizabeth grew up in a diverse neighbourhood of Nova Scotia, yet, despite the apparent diversity of her community, there were still quite prominent issues of racial discrimination and inequality occurring in various communities surrounding her. Mayann was made aware at quite a young age of the segregation and racial disparities that were occurring in her community, and in communities across the country. She knew that she wanted to be a part of the social justice movements that would work to abolish racial segregation and discrimination on Canada, and was compelled to do her part to affect change in some way. So Maryann pursued higher education at St. Mary’s University, graduating in 1972 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Following her undergraduate education, she took a job for the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

Shortly after her experience with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, she moved to the United States, where she lived for 16 years. In those 16 years, Maryann was able to earn her Master of Arts degree, in 1984, with a specialization in Public Administration from New York University. She used her Masters degree to build a career with a focus on personnel and labour relations issues, issues that influence the quality of people’s lives, and issues that seek to be rectified through public bodies. This was in strong part due to her upbringing in an unstable racial climate in Nova Scotia, where racial segregation and discrimination were very real realities with which she experienced.

After 16 years in the United States, returned back to Canada and settled in the province of Ontario. There, she worked as an assistant deputy minister with the Ontario Women’s Directorate. Shortly after, she became the Director of the same organization. After her experience with the Ontario Women’s Directorate, she decided to return to her roots and pursue her career with the Nova Scotia human Right Commission. There, she became to Chief Executive Officer.

Mayann’s work to bring about social justice and equality within society was widely recognized both nationally and internationally. She received the Harry Jerome Award from the Black Business and Professional Association, the Multicultural Education Council of Nova Scotia Award, and the Golden Jubilee Medla. Furthermore, she is the first woman ombudsman, black or white, of Nova Scotia. She moved on to become the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia in 2006. She is also the first Black Nova Scotian, man or woman, and the second Black Canadian to hold this position.

Her extensive experience in various senior public service positions is in large part due to her experience with racism and segregation. As a Black woman during a time where segregation was the everyday reality for all people in the United States and in Canada, Mayann Elizabeth knew first-hand what it was like to be discriminated and judged for reasons beyond control. She understood what social injustice and inequality felt like from a victim’s point of view. These horrible experiences inspired Maryann to live a life of public advocacy; live a life and build a career built on the principles of social justice and equality. To this day, she remains a largely influential and historical figure of Canadian history through her work in affecting change with regards to racial discrimination, segregation, and racial inequality.

Resources:

http://www.blackhistorycanada.ca/profiles.php?themeid=20&id=17

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/mayann-elizabeth-francis/

http://www.cbc.ca/informationmorningcb/2009/10/mayann-francis.html

What I Learned From A Child Soldier

You never know what to expect when you come to Ryerson University. Surrounded by such diversity and opportunities, I’ve come to take every day as an unexpected journey – an everyday Bilbo Baggins. That’s why when I saw a poster that read “In Conversation with Michel Chikwanine: A Former Child Soldier,” I couldn’t look away. Although my parents were expecting me home in the next 2 hours, I knew this was another one of those “once in a lifetime opportunity”.

The International Issues Discussion (IID) series is designed to engage the community on major events and issues in contemporary global affairs. Michel’s presentation was incredibly captivating as he effortlessly took us back to when he was a boy living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a refugee in Canad and now, a public speaker and  student at the University of Toronto. I had not intended on retelling his story on this blog but I feel it is important to do so. His story is special because he survived but it isn’t unique as people to this day, are still living his story.

child soldier

Courage and the pursuit of knowledge are two things that Michel has come to live by. For one, I think courage is a loaded term. What one might find courageous, another finds idiotic as it often means fighting the norm or what is expected of you.


“If you want anything you must be resilient’ – Michel Chikwanine

It was when Michel was a boy that his one courageous act is the reason he is still alive today. When he was a boy, Michel stayed afterschool to play soccer with his friends – defying his father’s order. It was there that soldiers came and abducted him and his bestfriend. There, like thousands before him, he was conditioned to become a weapon. Stabbed in the arm with cocaine and gun powder, he was blindfolded and told to shoot the gun that was placed in his small hands. The foreign curves and weight of such a violent tool was too much for him and he dropped it. But as the hysteria from his wounds took over him, he finally shot. When he opened his eyes, he saw his best friend lying there, in a pool of his own blood. He was 5 at the time and his best friend was 12.

That was his initiation. The soldier then evoked more fear by saying because he had killed his best friend, his family will never love him and they are his family now. This initiation step has forced children to believe a lie that encapsulates them in a life of fear, hate and violence. But Michel knew he needed to escape and he finally did when the soldiers took him to a village. Everyone went with their guns into the village but Michel ran into the forest. He ran for days, in a direction he did not know without food or water. To this day, he still has scars around his body. After days of running, he came out of the woods, to a shop that looked familiar. He ran into it, mumbled hysteria and passed out. He woke up in the hospital with his family around him.

After that things got worse and better. Michel’s father was a human rights lawyer and was abducted and tortured because he spoke out against the injustices that went unnoticed. When soldiers came to his house they made Michel watch as they raped his mother and three sisters. They said they would come back the next day so they fled that night with the clothes on their backs. Their journey as refugees was brutal but they eventually made it to Canada. To my shock, they were billed for the flight and food they had not only on the plane which amounted to $5,000.

Today, his family is not whole as his father was poisoned and one of his sisters went missing when she was getting her refugee papers. But Michel remains optimistic and courageous. He speaks about his experience and advocates for change that one day children won’t have to endure the terrifying experiences that he went through. I leave you now with the words his father told him many times before and that he strives to live by:

“Who in this world won’t die? But what defines us is the legacy we leave behind”  – Ramazani Chikwanine

In Conversation with Stephen Lewis

Human immunodeficiency virus, or more commonly HIV, is a deadly and destructive infection that has plagued our world from, potentially, the late 1800s onward. Researchers believe that HIV can be traced to a type of chimpanzee in West Africa and that contact with their blood through hunting is what allowed the virus to enter the human population. HIV and AIDS came to North America in the mid 1970s and in 1981 appeared on the global medical radar when the level of infection was out of control and the pandemic and pandemonium began. As fear of this unknown killer virus spread through the Western world people began to look for answers, solutions, and wrongly, someone to blame. The scapegoat for HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and into today has been homosexual men as this was a major population the virus infected, while this was entirely false the discrimination still exists and is still stigmatizing. In reality, there are several risky behaviours that put someone at risk for infection with HIV. Also, transmission occurs because the individuals partaking in these behaviours are unaware that they are infected with the virus or that the people they are engaging with are. Unfortunately, the spread of HIV is only one of the problems in this discussion, the treatment of HIV and AIDS and the funding required are an entirely separate demon. This is merely an introduction to one of the most controversial and unsettling discussions our world has had and will continue to have as the fight against HIV and AIDS goes on.   

 

This past Wednesday evening I had the pleasure of attending one of the Stephen Lewis conversations, which is an ongoing series of discussions put on by the Faculty of Community Services and Ryerson University in collaboration with the Planetary Health Commission. The discussion, co-hosted by Dr. Alan Whiteside, was on the AIDS pandemic and where we are now in its development. Stephen Lewis is currently a professor of distinction at Ryerson and at one time was the leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, Commissioner on the Global Commission on HIV, Board Member of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, and the co-founder of the Stephen Lewis Foundation which works with community-based organizations in Africa that are trying to end HIV and AIDS. Dr. Alan Whiteside is an internationally recognized academic and AIDS researcher, he is the co-author of numerous articles and books regarding AIDS, and he established and is the executive director of the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division at the University of Natal in South Africa. These are two very short biographies of two very remarkable men who exposed some of the truths of this horrible disease to the world and continue to do so. Both Stephen Lewis and Dr. Alan Whiteside focus their HIV and AIDS work in Southern Africa where the virus is still rampant and where their discussion on Wednesday was localized. I will try to relate what was discussed so as to provide a better understanding for those who could not attend.  

 

It is important to note that the vocabulary in health has changed; we say that people are living with HIV and yes that’s true in Canada, there are people living with HIV because they have access to medicine and can remain on that medicine. However, this vocabulary is not necessarily applicable to Southern Africa where people are dying from HIV, where it is still a threat as it once was in Canada. It is believed that HIV has killed over 30 million people since 1981, and that 2 million people are infected annually. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 1.2 million people died from AIDS-related causes in 2014. HIV is a virus that we know how to prevent and control, and yet there are at least 6 million people infected with HIV in Southern Africa and 400,000 new infections every year. What is going wrong? Why is it that we have the answers but still haven’t solved the problem?

 

Looking at prevention, there are some very easy ways to slow the spread of HIV. As mentioned above there are certain risky behaviours that put us at an increased risk for HIV infection, these are most commonly having unprotected sex and sharing infected needles. The reason men who have sex with men (MSM) are more readily infected is that HIV is taken up by the body more easily during anal intercourse rather than vaginal. With the added dangers of not using a condom it is more than likely that an untreated individual with HIV will spread the virus to their partner. Unfortunately, the homophobia that is endemic to Africa does not help. Homosexuality is illegal in some African countries. Homosexuals are driven underground and fear death if they are outed, which makes access to medication even more difficult. Another risky behaviour is sharing needles with infected drug users. When intravenous drug users (IDU) shoot up, their blood enters the needle and is then passed on to the next user thus spreading HIV. IDUs have the highest risk of infection as they have direct blood to blood contact with HIV, this makes transmission extremely easy and the virus can spread throughout the community and beyond fairly quickly. One solution to this problem is safe injection sites, such as the Insite in Vancouver, which provides a clean space as well as equipment and medical staff to ensure that IDUs are safe while they are injecting themselves. It may seem odd to help someone inject themselves with illegal drugs that harm them, but these people are suffering from an addiction and still have the right to health. After all, they are still human and if they are going to use drugs we can at least make sure they are doing so safely and negating the spread of disease and avoiding potentially deadly overdoses.

 

Other at risk groups are sex workers, if they are having unprotected sex, and most notably women. In Southern Africa women are the population with the highest infection rates of HIV. The reason women have such high infection rates is because they face sexual violence. Women are often raped and abused sexually and this is the gateway for their infection. These women then have children and pass the infection onto their offspring, who will not live a long or enjoyable life if not given medication. Within the infected female population in Southern Africa, teenage girls have the highest rates of infection; they have 8 times the level of infection compared to boys in the same age group (15-18), again due to sexual violence. This is an at risk population that does not have an easy solution. How do you stop girls from being raped? Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer but I do know that if these girls are given medication and resources they can stop the spread of HIV to their children and other sexual partners and live a much better and longer life. If medication is the answer to this problem and we have the medication, then why is the disease still spreading. The answer is simply that these people are not getting the medication. They belong to stigmatized and oppressed groups that no one cares to think about and often are left to die. HIV infection is in itself a stigmatizing factor in Africa; add in the fact that you are a homosexual, a drug user, a sex worker, or a woman and people stop caring whether you live or die. Aside from the oppression that keeps people from their medication, there are rumblings that global AIDS funding given to African governments keeps disappearing after it is given out.

 

Corruption within African governments is not a new phenomena and it doesn’t seem to be going away. Both Stephen Lewis and Alan Whiteside commented on the way Southern African countries are run by their kings and while the King of Swaziland has a jet his people can’t seem to find their HIV medication. There are billions of dollars raised and donated to AIDS funds every year and for some reason the grassroots organizations in Southern Africa aren’t seeing this money. Where is it going? The United Nations (UN) stipulates that global AIDS funding needs to be distributed through HIV and AIDS committees which give the money to governments and presumably health departments to be used for medication, education, and the spread of resources so that infected individuals can live. However, people are still dying and being infected and kings are buying jets. Of course, some people in Africa are getting medication but money is still evaporating. The only way to determine where this money is going and to make sure it is going to the right places is through auditing. Neither Mr. Lewis or Dr. Whiteside knew why these governments are not being audited. What makes this reality even more terrifying is that AIDS funding is beginning to flatline globally. While the global funding is not going down very much it is not getting any higher and there is a risk of it beginning to diminish. Countries are slowly stagnating with their funding, such as the Netherlands which cut its AIDS funding by 1 billion Euros. Additionally, at the UN the funding for communicable diseases is starting to be targeted by non-communicable diseases as they begin to take a stronger chokehold on global populations. The funding pie is now being sliced for more diseases and more causes and this means that eventually HIV and AIDS will begin to lose funding. This leads into a much larger ethical discussion that is beyond my scope, but I will leave you with a question: how do you decide which diseases need more funding, how do you decide the cost of human life?

 

Dr. Whiteside did have one suggestion for the issue of AIDS funding and it was to be smarter about the way researchers and organizations go about asking for money and how it is spent. Dr. Whiteside was explicit in that governments should be responsible for the health of their constituents and that non-government organizations (NGO) should be there to pick up the pieces and to remind governments of the diseases that are being forgotten. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Africa at the moment. The grassroots organizations are the ones providing health to the people of Africa and the money is going to the government. So one solution is to get the money to the organizations on the ground and skip the corrupt kings and health ministers. How this will be done still needs to be determined.    

 

In our society we don’t always think about the threat of AIDS. However, prevention is shockingly simple and that’s probably the more devastating side of this story. A simple condom or having access to safe and clean injection sites- in essence having harm reduction policies in place will protect us. HIV and AIDS have been devastating our world for over 30 years and they are not going away unless everyone takes the responsibility to be safe. Behaviour change is difficult and it takes time but isn’t it worth it? Isn’t your life worth wearing a condom?

 

HIV and AIDS are two topics that require lengthy conversation and attention and that is why I will be writing about them again in another post on December 1, World AIDS Day. In the meantime, to learn more about HIV/AIDS visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, UNAIDS, the Stephen Lewis Foundation, and the World Health Organization. One last side note, free condoms and lube are available at the Student Centre, as well as at Ryerson’s Medical Clinic (KHW 181). Outside of Ryerson but still close to campus there is the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation at Sherbourne and Gerrard and the Hassle Free Clinic at Church and Gerrard (above Starbucks) where free medical testing is also available.