News / Toronto

Treatment, Stigma and Vision Zero: Toronto stories on World AIDS Day

The AIDS committee is launching Towards Zero, a campaign aimed at zero new deaths, infections and stigma to mark the day.

Thom Vernon, right, and his partner Vajdon Sohaili have lived together as a serodiscordant couple for the past 17 years. Vernon is HIV-positive, Sohaili is not.

CONTRIBUTED

Thom Vernon, right, and his partner Vajdon Sohaili have lived together as a serodiscordant couple for the past 17 years. Vernon is HIV-positive, Sohaili is not.

When Thom Vernon and Vajdon Sohaili moved to Toronto in 2006, it felt like they had found a home.

The two met in the U.S. 17 years ago, but when Vernon’s efforts to sponsor Sohaili – who hails from Zimbabwe – were denied, they decided to leave.

It wasn’t an easy choice; Vernon is a HIV positive, which can make immigration difficult.

“One person is positive, the other person is African. We were like the two queer people that nobody wants. Fortunately Canada would have us,” said Vernon, who now teaches screenwriting at the University of Toronto.

Since moving to the city, the couple have become advocates in the fight against HIV/AIDS. They’re currently taking part in Positive Plus One, a UofT research study looking to compile data about the lives of people in what’s known as serodiscordant relationships – where only one partner is HIV-positive.

An estimated 25 per cent of HIV-positive people in Canada live in mixed relationships, but “nothing is known about these people …  the issues they face and what their needs are,” said study director Liviana Calzavara.

Both Vernon and Sohaili say serodiscordant couples face an additional stigma.

“When we decided to tell my parents that Thom was positive, it was even a bigger deal. It was like coming out of the closet again," Sohaili said.

John Maxwell, executive director of AIDS Committee Toronto (centre) during this year’s Pride Parade. He is launching a vision zero campaign to fight against HIV in Toronto.

Contributed

John Maxwell, executive director of AIDS Committee Toronto (centre) during this year’s Pride Parade. He is launching a vision zero campaign to fight against HIV in Toronto.

For AIDS Committee Toronto director John Maxwell, the fight against HIV/AIDS is all about zero.

Zero new deaths, zero new infections and zero stigma.

Those are the goals of the AIDS Committee’s new Towards Zero campaign, which launches Thursday to coincide with World AIDS Day.

“We have to realize that we are in a privileged situation where everyone can afford medications and all information needed,” Maxwell said.

In Toronto, new diagnoses have dropped “significantly” over the past two years, from more than 800 a year to around 400, said Maxwell. The number of new infections among women has decreased by 57 per cent.

Eventually, Maxwell wants to get that number to zero.

“We basically want to put ourselves out of business,” he said.

Zahid Somani has been working in HIV medical treatment for more than 20 years.

Lance McMillan/ For Metro

Zahid Somani has been working in HIV medical treatment for more than 20 years.

Zahid Somani, the owner of the Village Pharmacy in the Church and Wellesley area, has been on the front line of the fight against HIV/AIDS for two decades.

“I’ve seen it all the way from the days when we only had AZT as a treatment to today where we have five or six classes of treatments,” he said.

Somani says recent advancements in medical technology are allowing people to live near-normal lives with HIV/AIDS.

“Today, HIV is no longer a death sentence. It is a chronic, treatable illness and it’s important for people to know that.”

The current trend is the Single Tablet Regiment, where patients can have multiple medications in one pill, making it easier to follow prescriptions without missing doses.

Last February, Health Canada approved the use of Truvada as PrEP, allowing HIV-negative people to take it as a prevention measure.

However, Health Canada estimates 25 per cent people with HIV in Canada don’t know they have the disease.

“That’s the big issue, if people don’t even know they’re at risk,” said Somani.

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