Even before doctors determined that the source of her baby girl’s illness was HIV, Denise Wozniak remembered thinking: “The worst thing it could have been was AIDS.”
She recalled the U.S. movie Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks, a lawyer who was shunned after he got the disease, was playing at theatres at the time and her and her husband were afraid to let anyone know why Katie died at nine months old.
“We knew at the time it was so stigmatized, we couldn’t tell anybody,” said Wozniak, one of more than 75,000 Canadians living with HIV and marking World AIDS Day today.
It was the early 1990s, more than a decade after the disease arrived on the world scene, when the doctors delivered the devastating news. Katie was six months old. She hadRECOVERED enough at one point for her and her husband to bring her home.
“But they said, be very very careful who you tell. People will stigmatize you and judge you,” she said.
Even when her baby died, they told only Wozniak’s sister.
“I hate telling lies, so it was most difficult for me,” said Wozniak, who was depressed and diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It was very, veryHARD not to commit suicide at the time,” said Wozniak, now 56 and living with her third husband in Mission.
She had the chance to come out as an HIV-positive woman in 1996, when the Abbotsford News profiled her as the unlikely face of AIDS. She agreed because, “I thought I was carrying on the stigma by not sharing that women and children can get it, too.” It’s a disease that affects mainly men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users, but to a lesser extent women.
Wozniak, after her first marriage failed in the late 1980s, had had unprotected sex in three relationships before her second marriage in 1990, and believes that’s when she contracted it. She didn’t know she had the disease until after she gave birth and said her daughter likely contracted it in utero, or, less likely, through her breast milk.
Wozniak knows she’s not alone.
“I am one of the few women who talks about it,” she said. “I know at least 40 women who would never talk about and they’re a lot like me.”
A group she ran for families with children with HIVNUMBERED in the 40s years ago, she said. But because of the advancement in anti-viral drugs that reduces the viral load for persons living with AIDS to undetectable levels, a mother with HIV hasn’t passed on the disease to her child in B.C. for the past 14 years.
Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and one of B.C.’s most prominent anti-AIDS doctors, said that strategy — “treatment as prevention” — is working but remains an ongoing goal, decades after the first World AIDS Day in 1988. “It’s an opportunity to takeSTOCK in how far we have come and how far we still have to go to deliver the promise of an AIDS-free generation.”
There’s been a “dramatic decrease in the deathRATE that’s been quite remarkable,” said Montaner, saying in 1995, 250 to 300 people died from AIDS and now there’s fewer than 58 deaths a year. Plus, in the mid-1990s, there were two new diagnoses of HIV infections a day and now there are one to two a month.