While Ebola and MERS grab headlines, HIV/AIDS continues to affect a staggering 34 million people worldwide. In Canada, 71,300 are infected with HIV — an increase of 11 percent from 2008. It’s a disappointing trend, given the number of prevention campaigns since it was first reported in the early 1980s.
Khaled Salam, left, executive director of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa (ACO), suggests the reason HIV/AIDS infection rates have plateaued is that with better drugs, people are able to live with the disease for a much longer time. He also cites fatigue: three decades is a long time to battle a single pandemic.
All this makes for a bittersweet 30th anniversary for ACO, which is commemorating its history with, among other initiatives this September, ACOXXX — Our Words, Our Stories, Our Lives, a coffee-table-style book that documents Ottawans affected by HIV/AIDS — past and present.
“There’s so much doom and gloom surrounding HIV/AIDS. Instead, we want the project to celebrate the people who’ve passed on, survived, and thrived over the course of 30 years,” says Salam. “In the beginning, we had nothing. And here we are today,” he adds, gesturing to ACO’s new, much larger home on Main Street — a space that has room for a community kitchen, laundry, offices, a recreational area, a needle exchange, therapeutic chairs, a massage table — even a patio and gardening space.
This new facility represents the future of ACO and gives it the ability to better help its clients, especially gay/bisexual men, who continue to make up more than 50 percent of those infected, as well as African, Caribbean, African-American, and Indigenous peoples, drug users, and women at risk.
Here, a look back at the struggle with HIV/AIDS — the wins and losses, both locally and internationally.
June 5, 1981
The United States reports that five young, previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles are diagnosed as having a rare lung infection, as well as suffering from a number of other infections indicating immune-system failure. Within days, doctors from across the U.S. flood the Centers for Disease Control with reports of similar cases. These cases represent the first diagnoses of what then is called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.
The first case of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is diagnosed in Canada.
The first Canadian dies from AIDS; AIDS Vancouver, the first AIDS organization in Canada, is founded, as is a national task force to study the disease.
A walk from Toronto to Montreal is held to raise funds for AIDS. It represents the first of many future AIDS walks.
January 4, 1984
Peter Evans, Ottawa’s first recorded AIDS victim, dies at Ottawa General Hospital.
The AIDS Committee of Toronto creates the first official AIDS Awareness Week, which would become a provincial and national event in later years.
A blood test for the AIDS virus becomes available in Canada.
At a conference in Montreal, health experts meet to discuss the creation of the Canadian AIDS Society. Canadian Red Cross confirms AIDS has been found in blood banks and announces plans to start testing for HIV — this comes after denials the previous year linking AIDS with their blood products.
July 9, 1985
Barry Deeprose proposes the establishment of an AIDS Committee of Ottawa as a subcommittee of Pink Triangle Services (PTS) to raise awareness and provide services. PTS board member Bob Read supports Deeprose.
October 2, 1985
Households around North America are shaken by the news that actor Rock Hudson has died from AIDS.
People with HIV/AIDS are protected against discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Toronto becomes the first city in Canada to develop an AIDS strategy that includes funding for community-based organizations.
May 17, 1986
ACO volunteers distribute 500 condoms and brochures across bars in Ottawa. Campaign T-shirts had to be withdrawn because War Amps of Canada complained that their “Play Safely” logo degraded their own Play Safe program for children.
Canadian AIDS Society is formed.
AZT (azidothymidine), the first anti-HIV drug, is approved in the United States and Canada.
ACO is officially incorporated, receiving registered-charity status and a provincial grant of $164,000 for prevention and health services.
The Canadian AIDS Society publishes the first safe-sex guidelines for Canada. ACO moves into 267 Dalhousie St., a space it shares with the Canadian AIDS Society. Around the same time, AIDS Housing Group of Ottawa (later Bruce House) is established to develop a donated house into a hospice.
First World AIDS Day.
The Fifth International AIDS Conference is held in Montreal, Quebec; activists are present, demanding more action from governments for people living with
June 15 to 18, 1989
The Names Project quilt, which commemorates those who have died from AIDS, is displayed for the first time in Ottawa during Gay Pride Week. Over 4,000 people view it.
ACO begins to advocate for anonymous HIV/AIDS testing.
The Canadian government announces a national AIDS strategy.
April 1, 1990
ACO opens the People Living With AIDS Centre at 267 Dalhousie St. It later becomes known as The Living Room.
October 6, 1990
ACO holds the first From All Walks of Life fundraiser.
Actor Jeremy Irons is seen wearing the red ribbon, a symbol for awareness and support of those living with HIV/AIDS, at the 45th Tony Awards.
The success of highly active antiretroviral therapy is the big news at the 11th International AIDS Conference in Vancouver.
Following the tainted-blood scandal, Canadian Blood Services is established to operate Canada’s blood supply system, ending the involvement of the Canadian Red Cross with the blood program.
Swiss HIV experts produce a landmark consensus statement saying that HIV-positive individuals on effective antiretroviral therapy who have had an undetectable viral load for at least six months and without sexually transmitted infections are sexually non-infectious.
A landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada opens the door to supervised drug-injection clinics across the country.
A U.S. study deems the once-a-day pill, which combines four HIV drugs into a single daily treatment, safe and effective.
The Supreme Court of Canada makes an important ruling on the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure: people with low-level HIV don’t legally need to disclose their infection if they use a condom.
ACO moves from its location at 251 Bank St. to its new facilities at 19 Main St.
ACO launches regular Sunday “gratitude dinners” for individuals who have been instrumental in shaping ACO and the HIV/AIDS movement in Ottawa.
ACO celebrates its 30th anniversary by launching its legacy project, ACOXXX — Our Words, Our Stories, Our Lives.