In February 1991, Charlene Anderson’s life changed in a heartbeat.
After roughly a year of flu-like symptoms, Anderson convinced her doctor to test her for HIV. She guessed she had contracted the infection from her partner and shortly after, the results came back positive. She was given five to seven years to live.
“I was crushed. I was devastated. My life changed in a heartbeat,” said the Victoria resident, who is raising awareness of HIV/AIDS this week.“I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know who to tell and who to turn to.”
Human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV) attacks and slowly takes over the body’s immune system. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) often follows several years of HIV infection when the immune system has been so destroyed it can’t fight serious illnesses or disease. There are no cures for the infections.
An alcoholic and drug addict for the 15 years prior to being diagnosed, the diagnosis spiralled Anderson back into that lifestyle. She told her family and close friends about the diagnosis, but found it difficult to tell people due to the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS.
Shortly after, her doctor put her in contact with AIDS Vancouver Island (AVI), a non-profit organization that provides programs, support and services for those infected or affected by HIV or hepatitis C, which dramatically changed her perspective on the infection.
Anderson began seeing it not as a death sentence, but a chance at a new life.
She received treatment for her addictions, began speaking to friends again, went to support meetings and volunteered with the organization, as well as the Victoria Persons with AIDS Society. She also took up yoga and running and has been sober since.
“I did a complete 180 on my outlook on life. I am healthier than I’ve ever been in my life,” said the now 55-year-old. “HIV has been a huge gift for me, it’s gotten me involved in my life outside of myself. I’ve done so many things because of this disease and had so many opportunities.”
While she still goes to see a specialist in Vancouver twice a year, medication has helped Anderson get control of the infection. She is now in remission with the virus still in her blood, but not active and multiplying.
Now, Anderson and AVI, are hoping to raise awareness as part of World AIDS Day on Thursday, Dec. 1.
According to Hermione Jefferis, manager of health promotion and community development with AVI, there are more than 900 people on Vancouver Island living with HIV/AIDS. She noted it’s still stigmatized, with many people thinking it only affects people who are gay or intravenous drug users.
“It’s to raise awareness, to keep it in people’s mind’s, to encourage people to be tested and to diminish the stigma around it and to remember that people still are dying from their HIV infections if they don’t have access to health care,” said Jefferis, adding new provincial testing guidelines have been added recently to encourage people between the ages of 18 to 70 years old get routine HIV tests every five years.
As part of World AIDS Day, the Getting Higher Choir will perform in the courtyard of the Greater Victoria Public Library’s central branch downtown at 4 p.m., followed by a group march to the legislature where a red ribbon candle display will be lit. Dec. 2 also marks the launch of Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week with events at the library as well.