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World AIDS Day: Twenty Years and Counting

Much about the face of AIDS has changed in twenty years, from new treatment options, to changing in campaign approaches and government support. Three organizations from Montreal – ACCM, SeroZero and COCQ-SIDA – explain how they view the importance of World AIDS Day, and the changing roles of community organization twenty years into the World AIDS Day campaign.

In the Beginning
World AIDS Day was founded in 1988 by the World Health Organization and the United Nations General Assembly as an international day in recognition of the global effects of HIV/AIDS. Today, it remains an important symbol of international solidarity and an opportunity for AIDS organizations around the globe to promote HIV-prevention and education during “AIDS Awareness Week” from Nov.25 – Dec.1.

Each year, World AIDS Day has an international theme set by UNAIDS, such as “Communication,” or “Stigma and Discrimination”. For 2008, the theme is “Leadership,” an idea many of the HIV/AIDS organizations in Montreal have taken to heart.

Importance of World AIDS Day
Coalition des organismes communautaires québécois de lutte contre le sida or COCQ-SIDA, is an coalition representing all AIDS organizations across Quebec. Current member groups include AIDS Community Care Montreal (ACCM), CACTUS, SeroZero, and many others.

For Ken Monteith, the Executive Director of COCQ-SIDA, the purpose of World AIDS Day is two-fold: first, it is an opportunity to raise awareness and to emphasize the fact that the disease still has a devastating impact across the world. Second, it is a day of commemoration for those who have died in the past twenty years.

“We can’t lose sight of that,” he says, noting that there are still people struggling with the disease every day. As the public is faced with a different “day” for nearly every disease, it can be hard to capture any attention, but Monteith says “We don’t have too much of a good thing when people are still getting infected. Every new generation needs to be educated, and so prevention needs to be renewed constantly.”

AIDS Community Care Montreal (ACCM) is an English-language organization with a mandate to support people living with HIV/AIDS, and to promote education and prevention of HIV. Through workshops, outreach work, community activities and support groups, they operate on a harm-reduction philosophy, and aim to empower individuals living with HIV/AIDS.

According to Mark Hapanowicz, Executive Director of ACCM, World AIDS Day is an important expression of international solidarity, and an opportunity to raise awareness about the disease. While spotlight may often focus on the effects of AIDS in the developing world, Hapanowicz says that support is still needed here in Montreal.

“We can’t forget that HIV is a daily reality for many people,” he says.

Then and Now
SeroZero is a francophone organization with a mandate to promote the health and well-being of gay and bisexual men within Montreal. They are the only organization which works for men specifically, which, as Clinical Director Thomas Haig points out, is an important population to work with, given that over forty percent of new HIV infections in Montreal each year occur among men.

SeroZero originally began with a mandate to promote HIV prevention and education, and to support the health needs of men who have sex with men (MSM) living with HIV/AIDS. As the face of the AIDS crisis changed, the organization adopted a broader perspective focusing on promoting the “Health and Well-Being” of men. Haig sees this change in mandate as part of a larger, international revival of a more holistic focus on MSM health that has occurred as a response to the changing treatments for the disease.

As HIV positive individuals now have access to treatment options, and ongoing care, the needs of the community are changing each year. SeroZero plans to change its name in the future to reflect this shifting philosophy.

ACCM was originally created twenty years ago as a volunteer peer-support group, offering accompaniment to hospitals and testing clinics, and sharing resources. However, as the virus evolved, the organization evolved as well.

“Successful organizations adapt along with the populations they serve,” Hapanowicz says. With a strong community and volunteer base, ACCM has now adapted to address issues such as workplace return and testing-stigma.

Hapanowicz also notes that the internet has offered many new membership and empowerment opportunities, both through ACCM’s website and the social-networking site Facebook. Many people who move away from the city continue to stay in touch with ACCM through the internet. Some of the organization’s workshops are also available online.
Education and Prevention

In terms of education and campaigns, Haig speaks excitedly about the third and final instalment of a five year, nation-wide campaign funded by the federal government, being finalized now and expected to launch this February. The campaign has involved several organizations from across the country, including SeroZero.

“It will be different from what has been done previously,” Haig says, noting that they plan to combine the campaign with activities and events, “It will be a surprise.” The first of the three campaigns focused on misconceptions about HIV status, and the second campaign promoted condom use in a playful and humourous way. Haig mentions that the upcoming campaign will follow suit, using humour as a way to get the message across.

He points out that having too much information without action doesn’t always get the message across – including events alongside a campaign makes for a more effective, and less passive, approach.
Ken Monteith points out that COCQ-SIDA, and indeed many organizations, have learned a lot in twenty years. Public and social marketing campaigns have come to targeting “at risk” populations, after many years of appealing to the general public.

“It takes more than a billboard,” he says, “We need action as well.”

Hapanowicz couldn’t agree more. In recent years, ACCM’s prevention campaigns have been targeted towards at-risk youth. Using interactive workshops, understandable language and an engaging approach ensures that the message is being heard.

“Since youth are used to interactive technology, workshops and other interactive approaches work well,” says Hapanowicz. ACCM also pairs this interactive approach with the traditional pamphlets and posters found at their kiosks.

The Role of Community Organizations
All three groups agree that community organizations fill a vital role in supporting communities. Thomas Haig notes that community members are often more effective than outsiders, as they have experience and knowledge that cannot always be known by outsiders. He also stresses the important advocacy role community organizations have, and the impact on policy-making, as they serve as a voice for a community.

Monteith says COCQ-SIDA’s role as a community organization is to “support member organizations, and to make sure they advance” from year to year. Community organizations evolve out of community needs and receive input directly from the populations they serve. COCQ-SIDA has a mandate to involve individuals from vulnerable populations in their organization – a strong source of empowerment.

Working with the UN level mandate of “greater involvement of people living with HIV/AIDS,” ACCM strives to have HIV positive individuals involved at all levels of the organization, leading to personal empowerment and a stronger sense of community. This challenging of traditional “staff” and “population” roles has proved very successful:

“It increases the likelihood of long-term sustainability and vitality” says Hapanowicz.

World AIDS Day 2008
For World AIDS Day in previous years, COCQ-SIDA has made a visit to the National Assembly, with a focus on testimonials from HIV positive individuals, and on bringing together different government organizations to address problems faced by people living with HIV/AIDS. Due to the provincial election this year, however, COCQ-SIDA will instead be preparing a questionnaire for each political party, composed of questions submitted by different member organizations. They plan to announce the results on World AIDS Day.

This year, ACCM is planning to host information kiosks in different public places in Montreal, including at McGill and Concordia Universities. The booths will offer information about HIV/AIDS and prevention methods, and spread the message that there still is no cure for the disease. Hapanowicz says ACCM also plans to place a public service announcement on YouTube and on their website. “Turning 20,” a documentary celebrating the first twenty years of ACCM, will be premiered on Nov. 30 at Concordia University.

Both ACCM and SeroZero are organizing a rally called “Shine some Light, Make some Noise,” at Parc de L’Espoire for the evening of Dec. 1 at 7pm. Everyone is invited to come, and bring an inexpensive flashlight and a canned good.

“We hope to have lots of light,” says Haig, “As much as possible.” There will be a moment of noise-making (as opposed to a moment of silence), in order to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and that fact that it is still around and still an issue. The flashlights and canned goods will then be donated to a local food bank.

“Memorials and commemorations have their place” Haig says, noting the importance of acknowledging the past and those who have died. The event planned for this year, however, is intended to be “part of a shift towards a really active, forward-looking message for the years to come.”

“Shine some Light, Make some Noise,” organized by SeroZero and ACCM, will be happening Dec. 1 at 7 pm in Parc de L’Espoire at the corner of rue St. Catherine and rue Panet. All are welcome to attend. Please bring a flashlight and a canned good for donation. For more information visit http://www.sero-zero.qc.ca/ or www.accmontreal.org.

The results of COCQ-SIDA’s questionnaire to election parties are planed to be announced on World AIDS Day through their website www.cocqsida.com.

The premier screening of “Turning 20,” celebrating 20 years of ACCM, will be held on Sunday Nov. 30 at Concordia University. 2-4 pm. Free of charge. Everyone welcome. SGW Campus, Room De Seve Cinema 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.
 

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