December 1st is World AIDS Day. Here in Canada, we have a choice about how actively to be involved in the issues of AIDS.
The rate of death from AIDS in Canada has declined dramatically. Our public education and health systems -- despite threats from cuts and privatization -- have still been able to carry out broad programs of AIDS education and treatment. Anti-retroviral drugs are freely available.
Thanks to the impressive work of AIDS activists, the stigma and mystery surrounding AIDS have largely disappeared. Although communities with high levels of poverty, homelessness and unemployment are still very vulnerable, the majority of our members do not live in daily fear of this life-threatening virus.
The AIDS crisis in Africa
Union members throughout the African continent have no choice about joining in the fight against HIV/AIDS. AIDS is killing 6,000 people a day in Africa. No family is unaffected. Employers hire two to three people per position, in order to have one trained person still alive to do the job. Shop stewards double as AIDS counsellors.
The United Steelworkers is stepping up its action in solidarity with people who are fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa. As trade unionists, we believe that an injury to one is an injury to all. Our brothers and sisters in Africa are being tragically injured by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. They are responding with courage and energy. They need and deserve our active support.
What to do
Here are some of the things that can be done at the local level:
• Commemorate December 1 World AIDS Day in some fashion in your local area;
• Fax your MP demanding that the Canadian government speed up the implementation of its much-touted discount drug plan for poor nations that is supposed to make low-cost generic drugs for HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis readily available;
• Post the Questions and Answers (below) about HIV/AIDS on your bulletin board;
• Invite a local AIDS organization to speak to your members about AIDS;
• Make a contribution from your local to the Humanity Fund for AIDS projects with trade union partners in Africa;
• Make a contribution from your local to the Stephen Lewis Foundation for projects to support AIDS orphans and palliative care for women dying of AIDS;
• Invite a speaker from the Humanity Fund or the National or District Human Rights and Women's Committees to speak to your membership meeting or area council meeting about AIDS.
Q & A
1. What is HIV/AIDS?
• HIV stands for human, immuno-deficiency virus.
• Human means it can only infect human beings, not animals.
• Immuno-deficiency means that it creates a deficiency in the workings of your body's immune system.
• Virus means it cannot reproduce itself but reproduces by taking over the machinery of the human cell.
• AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
2. How does HIV/AIDS spread?
• The HIV virus is transmitted through blood and sexual contact.
• A person can carry and transmit the HIV virus for years with showing other symptoms.
• HIV slowly invades our immune system, making it vulnerable to other infectious diseases which eventually cause death.
3. Where does HIV/AIDS come from?
• Scientists don't really know where the HIV virus came from so there are various theories but no real proof.
• Earliest known case is a 1959 blood sample from Congo in Africa.
• AIDS has been documented in the U.S. since the mid to late 70s, showing up in rare forms of pneumonia and cancers in the gay community
4. What is happening with HIV/AIDS at a global level?
• UNAIDS statistics give a frightening picture about HIV/AIDS.
• 20 million people have died so far from AIDS-related illnesses.
• 40 million people are affected by AIDS.
• 14 million children are AIDS orphans.
• The pandemic has hit hardest in Africa but epidemiologists suggest that it is likely there will be an AIDS explosion in India, which already has the second highest number of HIV positive people after South Africa.
• China has one-fifth of the world's population. The number of people testing HIV-positive rose 67 per cent in China in the first six months of 2000. China has only recently stopped being in denial about the incidence of AIDS in China, despite courageous efforts by individual Chinese doctors.
• AIDS has become the leading cause of death of many countries in the Caribbean.
5. What is happening with HIV/AIDS in Canada?
• In 1983, the Canadian laboratory for Disease Control reported that there were 51 cases of AIDS in Canada, with 86 per cent of those with AIDS being male.
• In 1995, the number of reported cases of HIV or AIDS was 49,800.
• Today the rate of death from HIV/AIDS has declined dramatically in Canada but the disease has evolved in unforeseen and alarming ways.
• The virus continues to spread in Canada.
• Despite a good understanding of the modes of transmission, the risk factors and prevention options, there are still about 4,200 new infections reported per year.
• Men having sex with other men and drug users are still the groups hardest hit but there is an increasing spread through the heterosexual population.
• AIDS is still most prevalent in population groups also suffering from poverty, isolation, and homelessness such as indigenous populations.
• There is still a need for us as unions to show lots of solidarity with AIDS activists in our own communities.
6. HIV/AIDS and drugs: Who profits?
• One of the frequent questions put to Stephen Lewis is "Why can't people in Africa get access to the same drugs you have in Canada for HIV/AIDS?
• Pharmaceutical companies have for many years protected their profits insisting on patenting their drugs for lengthy periods. The actual cost of the drugs is almost nothing but companies build in all the research and development costs, sometimes for longer than the lifetime of the drug.
• Generic drugs cost much less; in countries with national health plans like Canada, doctors tend to prescribe generic versions of drugs to keep costs down. poorer countries often have no option but to import the expensive patented drugs.
• After much pressure from developing countries, the World Trade Organization made a decision to relax patent rules, thus allowing cheaper version of patented medicines.
• Canada passed Bill C-9, a plan to get discount medicines for AIDS to poor countries in May, 2004. This amends Canadian patent laws so that Canadian generic pharmaceutical manufacturers can obtain the licenses needed to make cheaper versions of patented medicines for developing countries.
• By November 2004, the law had not come into force because Ottawa is still hammering out supporting regulations.
• Everyone is passing the buck. The generic drug companies are reluctant to act, fearing the new law makes it expensive to produce the drugs and leaves them vulnerable to trade disputes with the patent drug companies in future. Government says it has no role in exporting cheap drugs and leaves everything in the hands of the private sector.
7. What is the Humanity Fund doing in the fight against AIDS?
• The Steelworkers Humanity Fund is funding many projects with both trade unions and community groups in Africa.
• The Humanity Fund has spoken with all of its existing partners offering support for expanded work on HIV/AIDS.
• SINTICIM, the Construction, Wood and Mine Workers of Mozambique, now includes an AIDS education component in all of its courses. AIDS comic books are distributed to all of the members as part of their AIDS awareness campaign.
• NUMSA, the National Union of Metalworkers in South Africa, has now held training for office bearers, regional reps and shop stewards on HIV/AIDS. All shop stewards have had not only the basic training on AIDS but also a special course on AIDS counseling.
• The Humanity Fund has just agreed to fund a project in neighbouring Swaziland. NUMSA will work with the Swazi unions to introduce AIDS education.
• Community organizations in Ethiopia have recently contacted the Humanity Fund to fund work in HIV/AIDS.
• In addition to what we do in Africa, the Humanity Fund is working with the National Women's and Human Rights committees to support an AIDS awareness and fund-raising campaign in Canada.
• All local unions have been sent a video of Stephen Lewis speaking to Steelworkers and invited to get active in the campaign. Two local unions have already made $1,000 contributions.
8. What is the Stephen Lewis Foundation and why are we supporting it?
• Stephen Lewis has been appointed as the United Nations special envoy to Africa on HIV/AIDS.
• Stephen Lewis was for many years the head of the New Democratic Party in Ontario and is a long-time friend of the Steelworkers.
• He is carrying out an active education and advocacy programme on the AIDS pandemic in Africa all over the world.
• He has been so distressed with the slowness of government reactions to the pandemic in Africa that he has decided to set up his own Foundation to raise money for AIDS projects.
• He has been carrying out speaking engagements all through Canada as a way of raising money for the Stephen Lewis Foundation including speaking to many groups of trade unionists.
• When he spoke to District 6 of the Steelworkers in October 2003, there was an immediate response to his speech and $47,000 was pledged to the Foundation.
• The Stephen Lewis Foundation has decided to concentrate its work on funding for AIDS orphans and on palliative care for women facing death from AIDS.
• Steelworker locals are being invited to contribute to the HIV/AIDS work of the Stephen Lewis Foundation and/or the Steelworkers Humanity Fund
9. What are African trade unions doing about HIV/AIDS?
• HIV/AIDS has reached pandemic levels in Africa;
• Some employers now employ and train three people for every key position in their workplace, knowing that two of the three are likely to die from HIV/AIDS;
• Trade unions in Africa in recent years have begun to introduce HIV/AIDS into their bargaining and their health and safety education;
• In bargaining, they are pressuring management by recognize the urgency of the pandemic and to force them to see it as a management problem and not just something the Ministry of Health will deal with;
• The statistics on numbers of workers affected means that HIV/AIDS has a huge impact on productivity and that a far-thinking manager needs to promote AIDS education in the workplace and, when the health system is inadequate, supply anti-retroviral drugs to members;
• Unions are fighting for non-discrimination in employment practices for those suspected of being or known to be HIV-positive;
• Shop stewards are being trained to do HIV/AIDS education with members and to serve as AIDS counsellors to members with full-blown AIDS;
• Unions are being encouraged to take on community projects for people living with AIDS such as community gardens to provide better nutrition and help keep immune systems working well.
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