hen movie star Rock Hudson announced he had Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in 1985, the news sent shockwaves around the world.

“When [Hudson] was diagnosed with the disease and the newspapers couldn’t stop talking about it, the AIDS epidemic became palpable and the threat loomed everywhere,” writes Randy Shilts in his book And the Band Played On.

Over three decades later, thousands of Canadians are still becoming infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In 2014, an estimated 2,570 people became infected with HIV, just 230 fewer than in 2011.

Of the estimated 75,500 Canadians living with HIV in 2014, men who have sex with men accounted for more than half of all new infections. A further 32 percent contracted HIV through heterosexual sex, while 15 percent contracted it through intravenous drug use. Astonishingly, just over one in five people living with HIV was unaware of their status.

HIV remains a threat to public health

Many Canadians have become complacent about HIV — but that’s a mistake. “The virus can be slowed down and much of the immune damage reversed, but even the best of our current treatments cannot cure HIV,” says Dr. Rupert Kaul, of the University of Toronto. If the disease is diagnosed and treated early, a patient who is diagnosed with HIV today can live a long and happy life. Innovations in treatment and prevention also decrease the likelihood of transmitting the infection during sex or childbirth. In cases where the virus goes unchecked, “The disease can progress to the point where the immune system is severely damaged, at which time the person becomes highly susceptible to various infections and other diseases, including cancer,” says Dr. Kaul.

Public health officials and frontline health care workers need to be vigilant. That means finding new ways to educate Canadians.

Educational shift required

“At one point, our governments and public agencies realized HIV infection was a serious problem and made a concerted effort to educate people and to reach out to target populations,” says Christopher Bunting, President and CEO at the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research.

Simply instilling the fear of death in individuals at the higher end of the risk spectrum of contracting HIV — indigenous populations, gay men, people who inject drugs, and those from HIV-endemic countries — is no longer effective, says Bunting.

Experts have found peer-to-peer communication is an effective way to let people know AIDS is still a serious health risk, and that they can reduce the risk of contracting the virus by practising safe sex regardless of their sexual orientation;  getting point-of-care or other testing; and not injecting drugs.

“We have to do a better job of reaching  and educating those who are the most vulnerable in our communities about risk,” adds Sean Rourke, Scientific and Executive Director of the Ontario HIV Treatment Network. “To do that we have to take a step back and look at what drives risk in the first place.” In many cases, poverty, trauma, mental health, and substance abuse issues are major contributing factors.

Rourke would like to see all agencies — from government bodies to frontline health care and community-based agencies — work together with people with lived experience to build more pragmatic prevention interventions to address root causes of risky behaviour and nip them in the bud.

It’s clear that the battle against HIV/AIDS is not over. “Every three hours, someone in Canada is infected. That is astonishing in this day and age,” reminds Bunting. “AIDS is still very much among us.”