Living with HIV/AIDS today very different than in the 1980s

Speakers and performers gathered to mark World AIDS Day

Eric Smith spoke about his experience with HIV in the Halifax gay community at World AIDS Day in Halifax on Thursday evening. (Photo: Bianca Müller)

Eric Smith recalls a time in the 1980s when being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS meant being handed a death sentence. The Halifax man was diagnosed with HIV in 1986.

"When you were in your 20s and told you had AIDS, back in those days, it was assumed you were going to be dead in two or three years, so a lot of people stopped living," he says.

Smith was one of the local speakers at the World AIDS Day event held at the Italian Cultural Centre on Thursday. During his speech, Smith painted a picture of AIDS in Nova Scotia then and now, sharing personal accounts of life in the 1980s gay community and discussing changes in life with AIDS today.

"Up until the AIDS crisis, the debate on gay issues was directed by the right wing. Once people in the gay community started getting sick and dying, and we had to go screaming to the government, we found our own voice," Smith said.

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Dr. Robert Fredrickson was a doctor in Halifax during the 80s. He says the province was embarrassingly behind the times in terms of laws and treatments back then. For example, Nova Scotia was one of the last to allow combination anti-retroviral drugs.

However, according to Smith, some things haven't changed. He says battles with unethical drug companies are still a problem, overcharging and recommending harmful dosages. Survivor's guilt still haunts friends and patients who were lucky enough not to become infected or who have survived longer than their friends.

An aging AIDS population?

Today, the big issue in AIDS care relates to aging. Dr. Fredrickson said patients are living longer and are dealing with financial problems and lack of adequate pension funds.

"None of us thought that this was ever going to be a place we'd ever be in the early days of this. It was not something we talked about - aging with AIDS. It was like an oxymoron at that point," Fredrickson said.

Messages of awareness and hope

The event, which was organized by the N.S. Advisory Committee on AIDS, also showcased spoken word artists whose poetry placed people's experiences with AIDS into deeper context. The artists, including El Jones, described the cultures of poverty, shame, and misinformation that exacerbate the spread of the disease, especially among minority communities such as African Canadians. 

Mi'kmaq elder Billy Lewis provided some optimistic words of wisdom to those people who were in attendance.

"Life is like a grindstone. It'll either grind you down or polish you up," Lewis said. "It all depends on what you're made of. So I would ask each and every one of us to polish that into a gem and let the world see what we can do about AIDS."


Be sure to check out our video of El Jones, one of the spoken word artists who performed at the event.

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