Being Hurt Does Not Justify Disclosing Someone’s HIV Status On Social Media

Yesterday a woman who is a well known social media comedian with almost 100 000k followers on Facebook who goes by the name Mai TT came on social media to do a Facebook live, where she was crying because someone had sent her pictures in her inbox about her ex-husband’s wedding.

In her emotional Facebook live video, watched by over 70 000 viewers, she broke down and opened up about her harrowing journey, how she had met her ex husband as a single mother, how she helped her ex mother in law who was very poor, how she was ill-treated by her ex-mother in law, and most shockingly, how her ex-husband infected her with HIV, also obviously disclosing that he was HIV positive.

She also went on to give the full name of the husband’s new wife, claiming that she was 100 percent sure the new wife had no idea her husband was HIV positive.

As the names where disclosed, I went on the Facebook profiles of both the named ex-husband and the new wife, and lo and behold what I saw was not what I expected from what I had heard in the live video.

I saw a healthy looking goodly young man and I saw pictures of man who seems to dot on his daughter.

In pictures of his new bride, I saw a very beautiful young woman who looked equally innocent.

I just saw a happily newly married young couple, wearing beautiful matching African attire, yes I mention the African attire because it was the highlight of the story.

Now all over social media, I saw this young couple being vilified and called names. I saw the young man being called murderer and all sorts of names.
I couldn’t help but wonder, hang on a minute, there is something really wrong with this.

I am all for women’s rights. I sympathize with Mai TT. She sounds deeply hurt. Watching the video was truly disturbing.

But I think it was very wrong of her to disclose another person’s HIV status to the world.

If the ex-husband had knowingly infected her with HIV, why not report him to the authorities for such a cruel crime.

Why wait on his wedding day, to disclose such information to the world, not the police.

I have to be very honest in this, her retaliation was equally bad.

Some years ago, after I split up with my ex-husband, he opened a blog about me and in an act of revenge, he chose to mock my relative who was HIV positive. He also put up her pictures and full name, revealing her HIV status.

It was truly evil and at some point Vimeo and Google intervened and took down the content, as it was defamatory and damaging.

I have seen this trend with Zimbabweans on social media, when they are hurting, they retaliate and use social media to do the worst.

I have been through this where someone came on social media to expose my relatives HIV status, and it was a very cruel calculated act of revenge that can never be justified.

Now back to the story of the Mai TT, I find it very hard to totally sympathise with her though I do to some extent. I feel very sorry for her. It’s hard to see your ex husband moving on and happy when you are not. Shes obviously a woman hurting.


She has lived positively with HIV for years, knowing that it was her ex-husband who allegedly infected her.

She chose not to report her ex-husband for allegedly knowingly infecting her because she loved him, (her own words) and forgave him.

She then went on to brand herself as a comedian, in which her theme in her comedy is loving her HIV infected husband, whom she even refers to in her comedy as Baba TT.

She does comedy skits about her husband being a serial womaniser whom she stands by, honouring him even in his cheating.

She has gone on to make the most of her story through her comedy, receiving Awards and praise from most of her followers.

So in reality, her story has worked quite well for her.

So I don’t understand why today she has chosen to come out and publicly shame her ex-husband on his wedding day that he infected her with HIV.

I may be wrong but it sounds to me like a perfect case of a bunny boiler, that if she can’t have him no one else should.

But HIV is no longer a death sentence, people marry and go on to live happy long lives. So this young man can’t be expected to be single for life just because he has HIV.

I hate to say this, but I believe she’s still madly in love with her ex-husband, as she always portrays in her comedy skits.

She’s hurt but she loves him, this is why she chose his wedding day to ‘expose’ him. I believe she did this so the young man and his new bride will be shamed and attacked by her many followers, which is what has happened. I believe this was her act of revenge.

She has actually contributed in stigmatising people with HIV in Africa, that they should not marry and can’t find happiness. Because if her ex husband had not married, we would have never heard about his HIV status.

I think it’s such a shame and I sympathise with all parties involved, especially the new wife, who is one of the main victims in this story.

I also sympathise with the child involved, for she had to sit in the car and listen to her mummy tell the whole world that both her parents are HIV positive.

There is a reason why medical conditions are strictly confidential. No one should have their medical condition revealed to the world without their consent. No one should have their spouse’s medical condition revealed to the world without their consent.

There are proper channels to go through if you have been infected by someone knowingly. Just blurting it out on social media to the world is not acceptable, especially when there is no evidence and it’s just your word of mouth.

In conclusion, I’m very disappointed by this woman I saw as a role model to many Zimbabwean girls and women. Zimbabwe has over 1 million people living with HIV, and I think it’s about time the country has some laws and regulations about revealing other people’s statuses on social media. Being hurt is not a good enough reason to disclose someones HIV status to billions of people on Facebook.

Author: Jean Gasho


Who will stop mental illness??

Patients at Butabika Hospital undergoing therapy. They deserve an opportunity and second chance at life (FILE PHOTO)

BUTABIKA: On March 21, 2017, Beatrice Namukobe was admitted to Butabika Hospital for the mentally ill on recommendation by the police after she allegedly killed a five-year-old boy.

She escaped from her asylum and in a repeat of the crime; she allegedly killed another three-year-old girl using a knife. Unfortunately for her this time, a mob waylaid her and lynched her.

When she killed the first child, the police believed she had a mental problem and referred her to Butabika for treatment.

Namukobe represents a growing case of mentally ill persons in Uganda; some so obvious and visible but majority of cases are subtle with patients scattered in workplaces, in families or schools like time bombs waiting to explode.

Like Namukobe, there are many patients with mental problems that are ignored, some are taken to treatment centres like Butabika Hospital, but when they escape, it ends there.

Common problem

Dr Caroline Birungi, a Psychiatrist and lecturer in the department of Psychiatry at Makerere, says mental illness which is the condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feelings, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning is becoming a common problem in Uganda.

Dr Birungi says that 35% of Ugandans – about 11.5 million people – suffer from some form of mental illness, with depression being one of the most common.

“But barely half of these people seek medical attention from health centers in a country where people only associate mental illness with advanced and manic psychosis,” said Dr Birungi.

“However, even in the most seemingly obvious cases of the disorder, police and other institutions of health do not seem to have the capacity to detect patients,” she adds.

She explained that mental illness in Uganda affects over one-third of the population but that less than half of these individuals seek intervention because of the lack of mental health services, including providers of care, such as nurses; psychotropic medicines; psycho-social interventions; and psychotherapies, misinterpretation of symptoms.

She said the country’s mental health services are still significantly underfunded (with only 1% of the health expenditure going to mental health), and skewed towards urban areas and the total personnel working in mental health facilities are 310 (1.13 per 100,000 population) with only 0.8% of the medical doctors and 4% of the nurses had specialized in psychiatry.

A WHO report March 2017 ranks Uganda among top six countries in Africa with the highest cases of mental disorder and the report adds 1.7 million or (4.6%) Ugandans suffer from depressive disorders and 1.07 0r (2.8%) Ugandans suffer from anxiety disorders.

The report estimates that by 2020, mental disorders will be the second most diagnosed and recognised illness second only to cardiovascular diseases.

In the case of Namukobe, it is said she confessed killing her first victim and told the police she would repeat the act if she is released.

Reading is considered one of the forms of therapy for patients of mental illness (COURTESY PHOTO)

Although she was referred to Butabika for diagnosis and treatment, she later fulfilled her ‘promise’ before she got killed by a mob, itself a possible case of a ‘collective mental disorder’.

“Most of the common causes of mental illnesses are genetic passed on from a parent/s to the child. They are also caused by one’s personality and people who are at risk of suffering from mental disorders because of their personality are the kind that cannot stand disappointments, are short tempered and are difficult to deal with,” Dr Sheila Ndyanabangi, the head of control of substance abuse at the Ministry of Health says.

These illnesses are in form of mood disturbances, brain infections or injuries, epilepsy, schizophrenia and psychotrauma. “In our environment, factors like rampant infections in form of malaria, HIV/AIDS are sufficient contributors,” Dr Birungi says.

Head of control of substance abuse at Ministry of Health, Dr Sheila Ndyanabangi (FILE PHOTO)

“Injury to the brain as a result of accidents can be an offset of mental illnesses. Drug abuse in form of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine among others also leads to these disorders,” she added.

Dr Muhammad Mulongo, the DHO Bulambuli says the worst hit areas with mental illnesses in the country are northern Uganda and West Nile because they experienced war for a long time and that in a research conducted in 2004 among people living in camps in the northern Uganda, 30 per cent of IDPs had symptoms of moderate severe depression because of alcohol, drug abuse and stress.

“And People with HIV/AIDS are at a higher risk for mental health disorders, they actually have an increased risk for developing mood, anxiety, and cognitive disorders,” said Dr Mulongo.

He added that people living with HIV are twice as likely to have depression compared to those who are not infected with HIV and that some forms of stress can contribute to mental health problems for people living with HIV, including: having trouble getting the services you need, experiencing a loss of social support, resulting in isolation, experiencing a loss of employment or worries about whether you will be able to perform your work as you did before, having to tell others you are HIV-positive, managing HIV medicines, going through changes in your physical appearance or abilities due to HIV/AIDS, dealing with loss, including the loss of relationships or even death and facing the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS.



Doctors condemn minister over HIV/AIDS stigma, say his remarks explain poor govt HIV/AIDS support

A HEALTH lobby group has challenged political leaders to lead the fight against stigmatising people living with HIV/AIDS rather than perpetuate the problem.

In a statement, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) condemned remarks made by Deputy Minister of Finance and Economic Development Terrence Mukupe on a local radio station during a debate.

“For the purposes of denigrating and casting the listenership of Star FM against the person of Mr. Tendai Biti, Deputy Minister Mukupe asked Mr. Biti if he had taken his Anti-retroviral (ARVs),” the doctors lobby group said.

“ZADHR reiterates that political leaders must be torch bearers in the fight against HIV/AIDS and associated stigma and discrimination.

“Hon. Mukupe’s utterances casts aspersions in this fight.”

Mukupe’s comments, the lobby group said, could be a microcosm of government’s attitude towards HIV/AIDS.

“With such utterances from a deputy Minister of the Ministry of Finance it piques people’s minds on how the health sector is generally underfunded.

“We believe the lack of appreciation of issues such as the impact of HIV/AIDS on the socio-political landscape of the country generally drive the poor financing of the sector. Hon. Mukupe in this instance personifies such failures,” the group said.

ZADHR added: “Stigma and discrimination remains a threat to the fight against HIV/AIDS and as ZADHR we call upon all leaders, political, religious and community alike to take a stand against this vice.”

Mukupe in a heated argument with former Finance minister Biti asked if the People’s Democratic Party leader had taken “his ARVs”.

He was responding to Biti’s claims that the deputy treasury chief was “drunk or on drugs”.


Vancouver Pride StandOut awards announce 2018 Pride grand marshals

Squamish councillor, archivist and sign language teacher among honourees

Zoée Montpetit (not pictured, award accepted on Montpetit’s behalf), Orene Askew, Serene Carter, Alex Sangha and Marisa Pahl are among the winners of the 2018 StandOut awards. Credit: Angelika Kagan/Xtra


An LGBT archivist and the crew of an Indigenous youth-led documentary will head the Vancouver Pride parade as grand marshals, the Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) announced during the StandOut awards on May 24.

Ron Dutton, a retired librarian, has personally collected over 750,000 documents related to BC’s LGBT community dating back to the 1700s. A team of Indigenous youth led by William Flett produced the short film A Mile in our Moccasins, examining HIV stigma and discrimination.

A third grand marshal will be announced in coming days.

In a departure from previous years, the VPS left behind the traditional award ceremony format, and hosted a cocktail party-inspired ceremony at a local hotel.

“This year we wanted more of a party vibe,” explained Vancouver Pride Society co-chair Michelle Fortin, adding that the change follows community input and recent budgetary constraints.

The society is struggling with a deficit that forced it to cancel the popular Davie Street Party for this year’s Pride celebration.

Here are the winners of this year’s StandOut Awards:

Alex Sangha

Business Leader

“Anything is possible if we work together in the business community,” said Sher Vancouver founder Alex Sangha. “I think all parts of society need to support each other. This includes queer businesses.”

Sher Vancouver has provided counseling for South Asians and immigrants who identify as LGBT since 2008, and hosts a monthly peer support group for queer South Asian youth.

This isn’t the first time Sangha has been recognized by the Vancouver Pride Society; he was a grand marshal in the 2016 parade.

Alex Sangha is the founder of Sher Vancouver. Credit: Angelika Kagan/Xtra

Jeremy Dias


Jeremy Dias lives in Ottawa and couldn’t make the award ceremony, but the executive director at the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity said by video that his award was “not just a celebration of workshops and presentations or conferences, but a celebration of our culture, our community and our history.”

The centre promotes diversity in gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation nationally through services in education, health and advocacy.

Last week the Ottawa-based advocacy group announced it will build Canada’s first LGBT museum.

Jeremy Dias is the executive director for the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity. Credit: Courtesy Jeremy Dias

Zoée Montpetit

Social Activist

Zoée Montpetit is the founder of Queer ASL, a group that introduces American Sign Language and Deaf culture to queer and transgender learners in Vancouver.

Montpetit founded the group in 2009 when she found herself the only signing Deaf queer in the Victoria LGBT community. Today, Queer ASL is based in Vancouver and offers three levels of classes taught by Deaf queer and trans people.

“The very heart of Queer ASL is all about social justice and we are beyond honoured to accept this social activist award,” Montpetit said in a message.

Queer ASL founder Zoée Montpetit’s (not pictured) award was accepted on Montpetit’s behalf. Credit: Angelika Kagan/Xtra

Marisa Pahl

Friend of the Environment

The friend of the environment award, only in its second year, went to visual artist Marisa Pahl, who recently spoke to 50 environmental advocates and created a painting based on each story for a project called Future Oceans.

“I think the thing I’m most excited about is that this is a category that is recognized by the Vancouver Pride Society,” said Pahl. “It’s exciting to build more connections between environmental advocacy and [the LGBTQ] community.”

As a child Pahl dreamed of becoming an environmental lawyer or a marine biologist, but her time spent exploring other countries and wild places led her to instead pursue a career in art with an environmental twist.

“There is a lot of work to be done to make the outdoor community and environmental advocacy more inclusive of queer and Indigenous voices,” she said.

Marisa Pahl won the friend of the environment award. Credit: Angelika Kagan/Xtra

Serene Carter

Youth Award

Serene Carter is only 19, but she’s already working hard to create a better world for queer people of colour. She works for Out in Schools as a youth facilitator and talks to young people across the province about sexual orientation and gender identity policies and how to create inclusive classroom spaces.

“This award is a testament of how important it is to radically resist the prescribed outcomes for queer and trans youth of colour,” Carter said.

“It feels amazing to be acknowledged. And I think it’s a real testament to young queer youth of colour, and how our lives and stories are vital to queer spaces.”

Serene Carter won the Youth Award for her work as a facilitator for LGBT youth. Credit: Angelika Kagan/Xtra

Orene Askew (DJ O Show)

Kimberly Nixon Trans, Two-Spirit, Gender Non-Conforming Contribution to Community Award

Orene Askew, also known as DJ O Show, was elected to the Squamish Nation Chiefs and Council in December as one of its youngest members. In a major turnover, Askew is one of eight new councillors under age 40, and one of two who identify as LGBT.

“I’m in shock right now,” Askew said, as she stepped up to receive her award.

Askew also announced that the Squamish Nation will display its first Pride float through this year’s parade. Askew was not shy to take the credit for the float:

“There is a float because of me. I brought the idea to the table and the other councillors were very supportive,” she said. “We have a lot of LGBTQ people in our community and they feel voiceless, so I’m glad I’m at the table because I feel like I’m a voice for them.”

Askew is a DJ and motivational speaker who works with Indigenous youth.

“It feels amazing to be included,” she said. “That’s all we want. We want to be included and to be at the table. People’s acknowledgment of the territories is great, but now they are actually starting to work with us.”

Orene Askew won the Kimberly Nixon Trans, Two-Spirit, Gender Non-Conforming Contribution to Community Award. Credit: Angelika Kagan/Xtra


Gonorrhea, other sexually transmitted infections on the rise in Canada

Drug resistant gonorrheaDrug resistant gonorrhea culture are shown under a microscope lens. (THE CANADIAN PRESS /HO, Public Health Ontario)

TORONTO — Rates of sexually transmitted infections are continuing to rise across Canada, say public health experts, who point to a number of possible reasons for the uptick in cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis.

“In general, all the sexually transmitted infections have been increasing in the last 20 years,” said Dr. Jason Wong, a physician epidemiologist at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), who tracks cases of sexually transmitted infections, or STIs.

The growth of dating apps is one suspected culprit, though no studies have been conducted to prove a link between online hookups and the spread of STIs, said Wong.

“But logically, it’s easier to find sex and easier to find anonymous sex than it was before, which makes it harder for public health to track outbreaks when you don’t know who’s the contact for people that may have been exposed,” he said.

“The technology certainly serves to be a quicker interface to connecting with sexual partners.”

Wong also said more people appear to be having condomless sex, including those in the gay community, who once were at the vanguard of safe-sex campaigns in response to the HIV-AIDS epidemic.

“But with HIV treatment being really so effective now that it’s essentially a chronic disease, the concern around contracting HIV has really decreased a lot and that potentially is diving the reduction in condom use,” he said.

Last year, the province recorded 3,295 cases of gonorrhea, a dip from the roughly 3,700 a year earlier, but a major jump from 2012, when only 1,400 cases were reported.

On the other side of the country, Nova Scotia has also noticed a steady rise in gonorrhea and chlamydia cases since 2016, primarily in the Halifax area, said Dr. Trevor Arnason, regional medical officer of health for the central zone, which includes the provincial capital.

“In 2018, we are seeing slightly more than double the number of case reports than we’d expect based on the three previous years of data for the province,” he said. “Normally we would expect around 50 cases reported by the end of April, and there were over 100 reported cases across the province.”

About 85 per cent of those were recorded in and around Halifax.

There’s been a slow increase in cases of chlamydia in Nova Scotia since 2007, though no rapid jump in the number of infections as seen with gonorrhea, said Arnason, noting that syphilis cases have been declining since 2013, following an outbreak among men who have sex with men in 2009.

Along with reduced condom use, Arnason said there’s a concern about the growing number of people engaging in sex with multiple partners, possibly facilitated by social networking sites and dating apps.

“We know the vast majority of our cases are diagnosed in the under-30 age group and many of them are diagnosed at university or college sexual health clinics,” he said Monday from Halifax, which is home to several post-secondary institutions.

With young girls and many boys in Canada being vaccinated against human papillomavirus — a major cause of cervical cancer — and changes to guidelines advising that lower-risk women be tested less often for that malignancy than previously recommended, there is likely less screening for gonorrhea and chlamydia, Arnason said. Such STI testing was often performed at the same time as a Pap smear.

“Again, we don’t have any certainty, but there is concern that people are not getting tested as frequently and that is driving a long-term trend of increased transmission.”

Nationally, statistics confirm bacterial STIs are on an upward trajectory in jurisdictions across the country. Alberta, for example, recorded 4,763 cases of gonorrhea in 2017, up from about 3,700 the previous year.

In 2015, the latest year for which national figures are available, there were almost 116,500 cases of chlamydia, the most commonly reported STI in Canada, with females accounting for two-thirds of infections, says the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). Between 2010 and 2015, chlamydia rates increased by almost 17 per cent.

Gonorrhea is the second most commonly reported STI in the country. About 19,845 cases were recorded in 2015, a jump of more than 65 per cent from 2010. Males had higher rates than females, with the highest number of cases among those aged 15 to 29, PHAC says.

From 2010 to 2015, the rate of infectious syphilis in Canada increased by almost 86 per cent. In 2015, a total of 3,321 cases were reported, with nearly 94 per cent occurring among males; those aged 20 to 39 had the highest rates and men who have sex with men were among those at most risk.

While the three STIs can be successfully cured with antibiotics, untreated chlamydia and gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease in females, affecting fertility. Untreated, syphilis can cause damage to the brain, nerves, eyes, cardiovascular system, bones and joints. In extreme cases, it can be fatal.

And when it comes to gonorrhea, Wong of the BCCDC said doctors are keeping an eye out for a rare strain of the bacterium that’s become resistant to one of the standard antibiotics long used to treat the disease, which turned up in a Quebec woman last year — the first such case in North America. About a half-dozen cases have been reported worldwide, notably in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.

The Quebec woman had not travelled to Asia, but her boyfriend had been in Thailand and China and had unprotected sex in both countries, researchers reported.

As a result, Wong said public health officials are closely monitoring gonorrhea cases “because we do have some concerns that our treatments are not going to be effective anymore.”

Prevention is key, he said, stressing that condom use is among the best ways to protect against infection.

“It’s not just the bugs we have to think about, it’s networks of people and how they connect with one another and thinking about what we can do to prevent people from getting these infections or getting complications,” he said.

“But we’re also looking at what we can do on a population level that might suppress the potential that you would be exposed to these infections in the first place.”

Author: Sheryl Ubelacker


HPV vaccination not linked to risk of autoimmune disorders: Study

HPV vaccination not linked to risk of autoimmune disorders. File Photo

Toronto – Taking the quadrivalent human papillomavirus (HPV4) vaccination is not linked with increased risk of autoimmune disorders in girls, according to researchers.

Human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted disease worldwide, affecting 50 per cent to 75 per cent of sexually active people.

The HPV4 vaccine is effective at protecting against 90 per cent of the strains that cause cervical and anal cancer.

While several studies have indicated the safety of the vaccine, there have been concerns about a possible link to autoimmune disorders as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

“Despite demonstrated effectiveness in real-world settings, concerns continue to persist regarding the safety of the HPV4 vaccine. In light of these concerns, we wanted to study the HPV4 vaccination,” said Jeffrey Kwong, senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES)- Canada-based non-profit.

Also read: HPV vaccines and raising HIV awareness

For the study, published in the journal in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal), the team looked at data on 290,939 girls aged 12 to 17 years in Ontario.

Of the total 180,819 girls who received the HPV4 vaccination in school-based clinics, there were 681 diagnosed cases of autoimmune disorders between one week and two months after vaccination.

This rate is consistent with the general rate of diagnosed cases in this age group and adds to the body of evidence for the safety of the vaccine.

“These findings add to the body of evidence on the safety of the HPV4 vaccine and should reassure parents and health care providers,” noted Linda Levesque, from the University of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada.



Year of the Queer: Strut Vancouver and Rainbow Refugee Society offer a lifeline to oppressed LGBT people

Imagine a walk-a-thon in stilettos. It sounds painful, but that’s the point of the Foundation of Hope‘s annual Strut Vancouver fundraising stroll.

According to the foundation’s vice president, Chad Wilkinson, the goal is to “walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes”—namely LGBT people in other countries facing vicious persecution for their sexual orientation and gender expression.

“For them, doing something like wearing a heel could be very dangerous,” Wilkinson told the Straight by phone. “It could be lethal in some countries.”

This year’s walk from Sunset Beach Park along the seawall takes place on June 9.

By donning heels to benefit groups that serve LGBT refugees, Vancouverites might experience a bit of discomfort, but Wilkinson sees this as a way of acknowledging those who are suffering abroad.

“At the same time, the stiletto represents a metaphor for us,” he noted. “Even in our own society, it wasn’t until last year that we actually made it illegal for employers to force women to wear these shoes in the workplace.”

There's plenty of fun and laughter for those who participate in Strut Vancouver, but there's also a serious underlying message.
There’s plenty of fun and laughter for those who participate in Strut Vancouver, but there’s also a serious underlying message.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of laughs at Strut Vancouver, as well as heart-wrenching tales about the plight of LGBT people in countries like Russia and Uganda. The event begins with a welcome from a member of the Squamish Nation.

Since its inception in 2014, the Foundation of Hope has distributed more than $150,000 to various organizations serving LGBT refugees across the country. It’s mostly thanks to its popular flagship event near English Bay.

“In fact, Inland Refugee Society received a grant from us to assist them with their safe house that they established in Richmond for LGBT housing for newcomers,” Wilkinson said. “That’s one example of housing that we have contributed for.”

Syrian refugee Ahmad Danny Ramadan spoke at the Vancouver Pride Week proclamation ceremony in Jim Deva Plaza in 2016.
Syrian refugee Ahmad Danny Ramadan spoke at the Vancouver Pride Week proclamation ceremony in Jim Deva Plaza in 2016.

Rainbow Refugee Society helps make connections

Wilkinson and his friends at the Foundation of Hope are big supporters of Rainbow Refugee Society, a Vancouver registered charity that oversees the Rainbow Refugee Assistance Project.

This is a “blended private sponsorship agreement in partnership with Immigration, Refugees Citizenship Canada”, according to the society’s website, which has resulted in LGBT refugees being sponsored in more than 14 Canadian municipalities.

Rainbow Refugee Society was cofounded by lawyer Rob Hughes and Chris Morrissey, who had to take the government to court because it wouldn’t allow her partner to immigrate to Canada.

According to a city staff report, the Rainbow Refugee Society is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

It’s one of 15 groups being honoured as part of Vancouver’s “Year of the Queer” as they commemorate milestone anniversaries.

In addition to helping groups sponsor refugees, Rainbow Refugee Society offers support to LGBT people who’ve come to Canada. This includes those on student visas, temporary foreign workers, and those lacking documentation to be in the country.

“We’ve had folks tell us that they slept on the beach for the first three nights because they didn’t know what to do or where to go,” Morrissey told the Straight by phone.

The Rainbow Refugee Society encourages people to form a “circle of hope” to sponsor a refugee. These circles of good Samaritans raise money, complete application forms, create a settlement plans, communicate with the person prior to their arrival, and offer encouragement and emotional support.

The circles also assist the refugee once the person has made it to Canada. This can involve teaching the person about the transit system and community resources, going shopping with the person for household goods and food, and assisting in finding employment.

“Some circles are all gay men, some are all lesbians, but we also have mixed circles,” Morrissey said. “We have allies. There is one circle, for example, where all the women are straight and all the men are gay.”

She estimated that about 25 people have been sponsored to come to Vancouver and about 120 people across the country since the program was launched in 2011.

Wilkinson was also part of a group that, along with Rainbow Refugee, sponsored one of the city’s best known LGBT refugees: 2016 Vancouver Pride marshal Ahmad Danny Ramadan, author of The Clothesline Swing.

Coun. Tim Stevenson and former Qmunity executive director CJ Rowe helped bring about a new home for Vancouver's LGBT resource centre.
Coun. Tim Stevenson and former Qmunity executive director CJ Rowe helped bring about a new home for Vancouver’s LGBT resource centre.

Coun. Tim Stevenson delivers much-needed housing

One of the biggest challenges is ensuring that housing is available to a sponsored immigrant for 12 months after their arrival. That’s a requirement of sponsorship.

“These days, most people in our circles either have one-bedroom apartments or one-bedroom condos, so it’s impossible for them initially to provide housing for them while they look around and try to figure out where they would like to live,” Morrissey said.

To address this issue, she sought help from Vancouver city councillor Tim Stevenson, who’s long been an advocate for the LGBT community.

Several years ago, council approved a $50,000 grant to the LGBT support group Qmunity to explore how it could create a new centre in Vancouver.

That was followed up with a $7-million grant last year, which mostly came from a community amenity contribution from the rezoning of Burrard Place. On top of Qmunity’s centre will be 100 units of affordable housing at the corner of Davie and Burrard streets.

At Qmunity’s 14th annual breakfast for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia on May 17, Stevenson revealed that this subsidized housing will be operated by the McLaren Housing Society.

“I can now also announce that some of this subsidized housing will be given to the Rainbow Refugee Society for permanent housing for GLBTQ refugees fleeing homophobic countries,” Stevenson said. “Upon arrival, refugees will have temporary one-year housing while sponsors look for permanent housing. It means we can guarantee immediate housing for refugees when they escape queer-hating countries.”

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The McLaren Housing Society already provides housing for HIV-positive people and others with complex health needs at two other buildings near St. Paul’s Hospital.

Prior to his speech, Stevenson told the Straight by phone that he knew Ted McLaren, who died of complications from AIDS in 1986 and for whom the society is named. The met at UBC when Stevenson was the president of Gay UBC.

“I used to visit him in hospital,” Stevenson recalled. “So when he died, his parents, who I got to know, said ‘we want a legacy.’ I said ‘great’.”

After Stevenson became an NDP MLA in 1996, he worked behind the scenes to obtain provincial funding for the McLaren Housing Society, as well as for the Dr. Peter Centre. This has dramatically improved the lives of many Vancouver residents living with HIV.

For Morrissey, Stevenson’s work will not only help alleviate the housing crunch for LGBT refugees, it will also put them in close contact with Qmunity. This can help these newcomers make an easier transition to living in Canada.

“Yes, we had a lot of struggles, back in the ’90s especially, and we organized,” she said. “We did what we could but at that stage, we were not being threatened with imprisonment or death.”
However, in many other countries, she added, they can face horrific consequences.

“So I think it’s incumbent on us who have this privilege of being here and living safely—and more or less freely here—that we look beyond our own borders,” Morrissey said.

The Foundation of Hope‘s annual Strut Vancouver fundraiser begins at Sunset Beach Park on June 9.

HIV lies dormant in brain, increasing risk of dementia, but how?

HIV becomes dormant in the body and can hide in brain cells. Joseph Lebowitz, Dr. Min Lin, and Dr. Habibeh KhoshboueCC BY-SA

The HIV virus, which causes AIDS, has long been known to target and disable cells of the immune system, which are responsible for fighting off invading microorganisms and for suppressing malignant cancers. More recently, researchers also learned HIV not only targets immune cells in the bloodstream but also in the brain and spinal cord and that HIV can lie dormant in a person’s body for many years.

My mentor, Dr. Habibeh Khoshbouei, has been working on this problem and learned that one consequence of HIV in the brain is that age-related diseases develop much earlier. This includes neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, as well as an increased susceptibility to drug addiction.

Our lab wanted to learn why.

HIV effects persist despite treatment

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is shown budding out of an immune cell, which the virus infects and uses to replicate. NIH, via Wikimedia Commons

For more than 20 years, powerful drug combinations of antiretroviral drugs have been available to treat people with HIV infection, and these agents have dramatically raised life expectancy for HIV-infected patients from 36 to 49 years of age.

Though combinatorial antiretroviral therapies (CART) reduces viral loads to undetectable levels in the blood, HIV can hide within the central nervous system, where it can integrate into the genomes of brain cells called microglia – the immune cells of the brain.

In the brain, HIV continues to produce viral proteins and damage both infected and non-infected cells in the brain, boosting the risk for dementia, addiction and other neurological problems. Everyone with HIV will experience this, since HIV integrates into the genome and CART has issues crossing into the brain. The question is: why?

HIV proteins dysregulate dopamine signaling

To answer this, we used a mouse in which we can control the levels of HIV viral protein in order to probe the link between HIV infection and neurological disease.

Our lab discovered that an HIV protein, called HIV-1 Tat, reduces the level of an important protein required for the production of a dopamine, a neurotransmitter, in the brain.

Dopamine is produced by neurons in the central nervous system and by immune cells in the blood. Using a confocal microscope to see fine details, my colleagues and I carefully examined the dopamine producing areas in the brains of mice containing HIV-1 Tat protein and were surprised to discover that the neurons were alive. But, many that normally produced dopamine were unable to produce as much. We also found that an enzyme necessary to make dopamine, called tyrosine hydroxylase, was no longer detectable in some neurons. This suggests that the mice can’t make as much dopamine.

When microglial cells secrete the HIV-1 Tat protein, it is able to enter dopamine neurons and lower their activity so that they produce less dopamine. That reduces their ability to communicate with other cells in the brain, which can disrupt the ability to move and reward related behaviors. Also, low levels of dopamine in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra is a hallmark of Parkinson’s and predisposes patients to depression and addiction to drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine.

The results of our research, published in the journal Glia, reveal how HIV patients are more vulnerable to neurological and neuropsychiatric conditions that are somehow tied to disrupting dopamine levels in the brain.

There is clearly more to treating HIV that curbing levels of the virus in the blood. The medical community needs treatments that reverse the long-term consequences of HIV infection in the brain.


Public perception is tough to overcome in battle against opioid addiction

Three years ago, Rhode Island expanded its treatment of inmates with drug abuse problems. They were given buprenorphine, methadone and naltrexone and counseling up to a year. When released, they were referred to therapy within the community.

“It was quite an expansion to what we had already been doing,” said Lauranne Howard, substance abuse coordinator for the state Corrections Department. It was also the first time inmates in this country received such comprehensive treatment. The results were startling. Deaths from drug overdose in the prison system fell 61% over one year. Statewide, overdose deaths fell by 12%.

Despite evidence that such results were possible, Howard and Dr. Jennifer Clarke, the Corrections Department’s medical programs officer, had to convince opponents who feared the program would propagate addiction or enable contraband sales.

Similar scenes are playing out across the nation, with public health officials forced to combat preconceived notions about what addiction is, and what it takes to address it.

“We treat addiction differently than virtually every other disease,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “People with addiction are often blamed and told it is their responsibility to ‘fix it’ themselves, and stigma colors people’s thinking about what the right thing to do is.”

New York City officials want to open the country’s first sanctioned supervised injection site. At the facilities—Mayor Bill De Blasio wants four of them—people would be able to inject drugs while being monitored by medical professionals in an effort to reduce the risk of overdose or infection.

But efforts to launch similar programs in Denver, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle all stalled over the past two years during the height of the opioid epidemic amid criticism that they would promote and increase drug use.

“The reality is, when you open a heroin injection site you’re legalizing the use and possession of heroin,” said Joshua Freed, chairman of Safe King County, a campaign looking to ban supervised injection sites in King County, which includes Seattle. The organization is fighting a legal battle to put an initiative on the November ballot to prohibit public funding of safe injection sites. A judge kept a previous referendum off the ballot, ruling the initiative would supersede the authority of the local county board of health, which supports opening a site.

Advocates say the facilities reduce overdose-relate deaths and the spread of disease.

2017 report used when Philadelphia was considering a site showed that one in Vancouver, British Columbia, led to a 35% reduction in overdose deaths within 500 meters of the facility just three years after it opened in 2003.

Sharfstein and others like him say they’re tired of presenting evidence only to be shot down. More importantly, they believe the nation’s skyrocketing overdose death rate will not fall until addiction is treated like a disease rather than a moral failure.

Despite opioid abuse having dominated headlines for nearly two years, Americans remain skeptical about categorizing drug misuse as a medical condition. The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Researchrecently found that 44% of Americans surveyed said addiction indicated a lack of willpower, and 4 in 5 said they were unwilling to associate closely with someone with an opioid addiction.

“Stigma is the single largest reasonwhy we don’t have these programs everywhere where they are needed,” said Laura Thomas, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance in California. “There’s really no other health condition where we either use the criminal justice system primarily to engage around the health condition, or where we ignore the science and the evidence around what works.”

That would help explain why U.S. cities have only recently started considering such interventions as safe injection sites even though there about 100 in Australia, Canada and Europe. Studies of those facilities, as well as one secret unsanctioned site that has been operating under a heavy veil in the U.S. since 2014, show reduced rates of needle-sharing, which can spread HIV and hepatitis; fewer overdose-related deaths; and an increase in drug addiction treatment.

Public health advocates often speak with frustration about how stigma delays a response that can save lives. For example, in 2015 nearly 200 people in Indiana’s Scott County contracted HIV over just a few months from drug users sharing contaminated needles. Needle exchange advocates pushed to lift a state ban on the facilities, but the governor at the time, current Vice President Mike Pence, said he morally objected to needle exchanges. He eventually signed an executive order lifting the ban in Scott County, but it came two months after the outbreak was first detected. Meanwhile, more than 20 new cases were diagnosed every week at the height of one of the biggest outbreaks the country had seen in decades.

After tens of thousands of needles were handed out, new HIV cases dropped.

In 2016, Congress lifted a nearly 30-year-old federal ban on needle exchanges. The prior year, more than 33,000 people died as a result of opioid overdoses.

“Stigma is the thing that makes someone not believe in evidence because it’s that inconsistent with their underlying opinion about the situation,” Sharfstein said. “So, I don’t think it’s enough to just present data in order to overcome stigma.”

Public health officials dealing with the opioid crisis say there are lessons to be learned from how the stigma surrounding AIDS and HIV was blunted.

Programs like Horizon, which started in 1997, directly addressed stigma as contributing to the AIDS epidemic. Horizon educated people about the disease and found ways to properly measure stigma in different communities and catered responses to it. It also worked with the media to profile unlikely people affected by the disease—putting a face to the disease.

“So much of the early response to the HIV epidemic was to demonize and stigmatize people with AIDS and to portray them in all of these types of scary ways,” said John Hamilton, clinical outreach officer at Mountainside Treatment Center, an integrated drug addiction recovery provider based in Connecticut. “I think we’re seeing very similar things with those with addiction; there is so much fear that’s completely misplaced.”

Hamilton recalls that the federal government waited four years after HIV/AIDS was first detected in 1981 before committing resources. In that time, more than 15,000 cases occurred, resulting in more than 12,000 deaths.

Lawmakers have yet to appropriate funding to combat the opioid epidemic at a level public health advocates say would make a difference. Congress allocated $3 billion to fight the crisis for fiscal 2019 as part of the budget deal passed in February. The Trump administration’s proposed budget calls for an additional $7 billion in funding for opioid abuse treatment, for a total of $10 billion. But it has not yet reached the level of funding for HIV/AIDS prevention, which totaled more than $20 billion for fiscal 2018 alone.

Howard said advocates need to continue to make the case for controversial approaches to address opioid abuse and underscore what’s at stake.

“Sometimes I think you have to follow your conviction and do the best you can to try to get the resources and support that you need to put something in place,” Howard said.


PrEP: Protection against HIV in a pill?

HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus) weakens the human immune system and destroys the important cells that fight disease and infection. A person can get HIV when bodily fluids — including blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, or vaginal fluids of a person with the virus — come in contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue. HIV can be transmitted through breast milk, or when a contaminated needle or syringe comes into direct contact with the bloodstream.

There is no cure for HIV, but with proper medical care the virus and its effects can be controlled. HIV transmission can be reduced by consistent use of condoms and clean needles. However, another way to protect against getting HIV is pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP.

PrEP is a pill that can help prevent HIV

PrEP is a combination of two antiretroviral medications, tenofovir and emtricitabine, that, if taken every day, can now prevent HIV. The pill (Truvada) is FDA approved. Truvada works by blocking an enzyme so that HIV cannot reproduce and establish infection in the body.

The pill is taken by mouth with or without food. It is best if taken at the same time every day, as this helps establish a routine. Skipping days isn’t recommended. If you forget a dose, take it as soon as you remember. If it is almost time to take the next dose, skip the missed dose and continue the regular dosing schedule. Truvada takes full effect seven to 20 days after starting the medication. It can be discontinued whenever the protection it offers is not necessary (for example, if your risk for HIV or preferences change). Do talk to your doctor when stopping or starting any medication.

Who should consider PrEP?

The following circumstances mean that PrEP may be a good choice and worth a conversation with your doctor:

  • if you have had anal or vaginal sex with more than one partner and prefer to use condoms only sometimes or not at all
  • if you are a sexually active adult male who prefers male partners, whose HIV status may not be known
  • if you are in a relationship with an HIV-positive partner
  • if you have recently had a sexually transmitted infection in your anus or vagina
  • if you have had sex with people who inject drugs, or if you inject drugs yourself
  • if you are trying to conceive with a known HIV-positive partner
  • if you have used stimulants, poppers, cocaine, meth, ecstasy, or speed in the last six months.

What about condoms?

Condoms do provide protection against HIV. Unlike PrEP, they also protect against other sexually transmitted infections, and prevent pregnancy when used correctly and consistently.

Does PrEP have side effects?

Overall PrEP is very well tolerated. As with starting any medication, some people will experience side effects such as nausea, gas, or headache. In general, these side effects are mild and tend to improve with time if the medication is stopped. Kidney problems can occur infrequently, and so your doctor will monitor your kidney function with regular blood tests. Some people may experience a mild reduction in bone mineral density. The significance of this is not known, but it tends to stabilize or go back to normal over time.

PrEP does not interfere with most medications including suboxone, methadone, or oral contraceptives, and does not affect sexual performance. While this medication has been used extensively in pregnant and breastfeeding women who have HIV infection, the risk/benefit of using it for HIV prevention during pregnancy or breastfeeding needs to be individualized. Talk to your doctor if you are taking NSAIDs like ibuprofen or naproxen, or antivirals like valacyclovir or acyclovir.

What are the next steps if you think PrEP is right for you?

Make an appointment with your doctor and talk about why you think you would like to take this medication. Your doctor will run tests to check for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections as well as hepatitis A, B, and C, and check your kidney function before starting PrEP. Usually your provider will need to get prior authorization for the medication. Most insurances cover the cost. If your provider is uncomfortable prescribing this medication, ask to be referred to an HIV specialist in your area.

You will need to see your doctor initially after one month and then every three months, when HIV and sexually transmitted infection testing will be repeated. Your kidney health will be monitored via a blood test once within six months, and PrEP must be stopped if the kidneys are adversely affected.