Karen Dennis says she is lucky not to have HIV.
As a substance user of 19 years, Dennis came across her share of needles, which can transmit the disease.
“By the grace of God, I guess, I never contracted HIV,” Dennis said.
Now that she’s the executive director of the Victoria AIDS Resource and Community Service Society, also known as VARCS, Dennis feels “so lucky to work with the underdogs” of the community – people who have HIV and are stigmatized because of their lifestyles.
“We’ve come a long way – it’s certainly not like it was 30 years ago. But now so much of the funding is put towards the substance abuse population that people now are associating the disease with that population,” Dennis said.
“Gay men are still at a huge risk, particularly young gay men who were not around for the big epidemic” in the 1980s.
Dennis added youth are also at a high risk of contracting the disease, also in part because they didn’t experience the fear in the 1980s and some might believe the disease has been eradicated.
“People 25 and younger account for half of all new infections worldwide,” Dennis said. “A lot of people don’t get tested and that’s the other unfortunate part.”
She added people who have engaged in even just one high-risk activity – having sex without a condom or sharing a needle – should get tested for the disease.
In Greater Victoria, 1,500 people are known to have HIV.
To raise awareness of the disease and to raise money for AIDS research, VARCS is helping to host the Scotiabank AIDS Walk for Life on Sept. 21. People are encouraged to walk, donate or volunteer for the event by going to www.aidswalkforlife.ca/victoria.htm.
“I was around 30 years ago and know a lot of people who passed away (from HIV-AIDS),” Dennis said.
“I just feel that anybody who … has been touched by HIV or wants to see this disease stop being spread, join the walk because it honours those who paved the way and went through those horrible, brutal times of that pain and being disenfranchised. Many of them paid with their lives.”