Like many teenagers and young adults, Travis (his surname has been withheld by request) thought he was invincible and that he would never contact HIV. "I just thought it happened to heavy metal people and rock 'n' roll stars; I didn't know it was that common," he says.
Travis is convinced he contracted HIV at 17, when he shared a dirty needle despite being warned the person with whom he was sharing it had HIV. "I didn't care. I was too caught up in the game that I was playing with myself - Russian roulette."
Nowadays, he understands the risks he was taking, which also included having unsafe sex to support his addictions. Travis regularly visits the Dr. Peter Center, a West End day health facility that offers support for people living with HIV/ AIDS, which has helped educate him about the disease.
Travis says he wasn't educated about sexual health or substance abuse at high school in Chilliwack. "They didn't teach you how to put a condom on, and they didn't teach you basic things that you should know as an adult,” he recalls. The only sex education he remembers was in Grade 6, when his class was shown a video on how women get pregnant.
Willow Dunlop, Sexual Health Program Coordinator with YouthCO AIDS society, believes that once highly effective antiretroviral therapy to treat HIV was introduced in the mid-'90s, and the number of deaths related to HIV and AIDS drastically decreased, mandated AIDS education in high school also decreased. "You see a significant decrease in public knowledge and awareness about HIV since the mid-'90s," she says. Some people (of all ages) mistakenly believe that antiretroviral therapy is a cure for HIV.
According to a Ministry spokesperson, however, HIV/AIDS education in B.C. school has not decreased.
YouthCO was formed in 1994 by a group of HIV-positive youth, when they identified a gap in youth-specific HIV/AIDS services. The youth-driven organization's peer-based education and support services assist youth to make well-informed and safer decisions about their sexual health and substance use.
According to the 2015 UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic, young people aged 15-24 account for half of all new HIV infections worldwide. While youth currently constitute a small percentage of the total number of reported HIV and AIDS cases in Canada, they remain vulnerable partly due to risky sexual behaviour and injection use. In 2005, there were 868 positive HIV tests reported in Canada among youth aged 15 to 19 years, and 15,779 cases aged 20 to 29. According to Health Canada, over 27 per cent of infected people don't know they have HIV.
While today's youth have only known a world with HIV/AIDS, they still lack basic knowledge about how to prevent HIV infection. AIDS experts believe youth take risks on a combination of factors - a feeling that they're invulnerable, a lack of education and the inability to enforce safe-sex practices. In peer-based education workshops, YouthCO helps youth discover underlying factors that may lead to harmful behaviours.
Health Canada says that the median age of those reporting infections has dropped dramatically since the early 1980s, from 32 to 23. Dunlop says people are surprised to learn that those with HIV were usually infected either as teenagers or in their early twenties. "Most people who become HIV-positive don't test positive until much later, but based on back-tracking of their disease progression, it turns out most people have been infected as young adults." She reminds people it only takes one time, one person.
The Canadian Youth, Sexual health and HIV 2013 Study reinforces the need for AIDS education; it revealed that two-thirds of Grade 7 students and half of Grade 9 students in Canada thought there was a cure for HIV/AIDS. Half of Grade 11 students didn't know that you can have a sexually transmitted infection (STI) without showing visible symptoms.
Dunlop says for AIDS education to be fully effective, it should offer opportunities for small group discussions and activities, and allow for questions to be asked anonymously. It should cover the differences between bacterial and viral infections, how AIDS is transmitted, the importance of regular STI testing, treatment procedures, and what it’s like to live with AIDS.
"It should also teach compassion and address the realistic social context and systematic barriers that may lead to people being infected," she says. She encourages parents to talk to their schools about bringing in community groups who specialize in peer-based sexual-health education.
While Travis realizes his lack of education contributed to him acquiring HIV, he wants other youth to learn from his mistakes so they don't have to experience his pain. "It's up to you to make your own choices in life," he says. "Hopefully you make the right ones and don't go down the road I did.
Written by Mark Riegel, MD