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Message from President Thomas on World AIDS Day 2017

World AIDS Day, Dec 1

In 1988, amidst the encircling gloom of the HIV-AIDS pandemic gripping the world, health ministers meeting in London, UK, agreed that every December 1 would be World AIDS Day – a day set aside to bring awareness to the vast reach of HIV-AIDS and the need for a cure.

Those were very difficult days for those of us who felt virtually powerless to halt the relentless march of HIV-AIDS, which cut short the lives of millions of people, mostly young people, leaving in its wake grief, frustration and – all too often – children robbed of their parents.

In fact, at least 35 million people have died of HIV-AIDS – one of the most ruthless pandemics in the history of humankind.

Some three decades later, the gloom has significantly lifted, thanks to a radical change in global attitudes towards HIV-AIDS and revolutionary drugs that prevent the transmission of HIV, destroy it in its earliest stages, and control it in later stages.

The UN has set 2030 as its target for eliminating the scourge of HIV-AIDS. But we are still in 2017, and the pandemic continues to cause suffering, death, and upheaval around the world.

It is believed that some one million people died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2016. As of 2015, approximately 37 million people were living with HIV, while almost two million more people became infected with HIV last year.

Yes, in most of the developed world, people have ready access to health care and the medication that will stop HIV. But the majority of individuals living with HIV are to be found among the poorest nations, notably in Africa, where access to good health care is rare. In 2016, 19.5 million people living with HIV were on antiretroviral therapy – about 53 per cent.

To attain its goal of eliminating HIV-AIDS in 12 years, the world will need to do more – much more – to reach the other 47 per cent who currently have limited or no access to health care and lifesaving antiviral drugs. That’s why the theme for this year’s World AIDS Day is “my health, my right.”

Sadly, there are significant numbers of Canadians who continue to be deprived of their right to health care. Among them are Indigenous peoples, with whom we join in marking the start of Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week on December 1.

The new-infection rate for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people is 2.7 times higher than for the general population. That is in large part a function of the poverty in which they often live. But it’s also a legacy of their poor access to health services and to the means of both preventing and treating HIV.

Good health is not a privilege for some. It’s a right for everyone, everywhere. That’s why OPSEU continues to fight the privatization of health care and the dismantling of public services. That’s why we demand that the provincial and federal governments address the crisis in Indigenous health care, both on- and off-reserve, and dedicate the resources required to fix it – and fix it now.

World AIDS Day is not is a day for feelings of complacency or indifference, lethargy or fatigue. Some 5,000 people are newly infected every day. Almost half of them will not have access to proper health care to control the disease. If we want to continue to make progress, we must ensure the Canadian government does more, here and overseas, to combat HIV‑AIDS, and that the Ontario government improves access to health care generally, and to HIV care specifically.

Forty years ago, a concerted international effort eradicated another killer: smallpox. Wiping HIV-AIDS from the face of the earth is also possible. Let’s make it so. This World AIDS Day, let’s start following the #myrighttohealth campaign and do our part to ensure every adult and every child living with HIV-AIDS can exercise their right to health.