Living with HIV

Updated on:
July 31, 2021

How many people currently live with HIV?

According to 2018 estimates, there are around 62,050 Canadians living with HIV. Out of every 100,000 Canadians, 167 are living with HIV - this is also called a prevalence rate. At the end of 2018, it was estimated that 8,300 people were living with HIV but did not know about their status (undiagnosed), representing 13% of those living with HIV. 

What are the health-risks of living with HIV?

With treatment, people living with HIV live normal lives with little to no side-effects. HIV is a manageable condition, which involves regular visits to the doctor for monitoring. People living with HIV who are on treatment can achieve a suppressed viral load, which makes it impossible for them to transmit HIV to their sex partners. Being undetectable also significantly decreases the risk of HIV transmission through sharing needles, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.

If a person living with HIV does not have access to treatment, the HIV virus can progress and decrease immune system function. Untreated HIV can lead to AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, which represents a decrease in your immune health and can cause life-threatening infections and cancers. HIV treatment at any stage of the infection can reduce somebody’s viral load and protect their body and immune system.

Can you live a healthy life with an HIV infection?

Yes. The first step in living a healthy life with HIV, is to find and speak to your healthcare team. They will be able to inform you about what steps and tests are needed so you can start treatment, and find a treatment course that works for you.

You will also need to attend viral load tests to ensure treatment is working - this involves taking a blood sample that gets sent to labs. A lower viral load means treatment is working with the goal of being ‘undetectable’.

Finally, take care of your mental and emotional health! Stress, anxiety, and depression can go hand-in-hand with a new diagnosis. It’s important to know that there’s no shame in any of this and that HIV is a very manageable condition. Speak to a mental health practitioner to ensure you’re tending to your mental wellness.

Being HIV-positive & relationships/dating

It is completely possible to live with HIV and hook-up and date safely. Due to treatment advances, people living with HIV cannot pass HIV to their sex partners, at all. There is no chance that somebody with a suppressed/undetectable viral load will transmit HIV through sex.

Being single and HIV positive can be stressful mostly due to the unnecessary stigma and shame placed on people living with HIV. If you’re ‘looking’ for someone, or playing the field, remember that no person is worth you feeling negative about yourself. There is nothing wrong with being HIV positive.

Understand that it is not your responsibility to educate others on being decent human beings, unless you decide that is worth your energy and time. Instead, surround yourself with people who understand what it means to live with HIV.

Who do I tell about my HIV infection?

Whether or not you disclose your HIV status in the workplace is entirely up to you. Workplaces cannot require that you disclose, fire you, or question you about your HIV status. There are laws that can protect you if your workplace disrespects your confidentiality and agency.

When it comes to disclosing to sexual partners, Canadian law can be complicated. As it currently stands, a human is required to disclose their HIV status to their sexual partner only where HIV transmission is realistic. This law does not take into account recent developments in HIV research related to treatment (U=U), and is unclear about certain forms of sexual behaviour which may or may not pose a risk of HIV transmission. Like we said… it’s complicated.

However, current recommendations encourage the legal system not to pursue criminal charges for HIV non-disclosure (unless in cases of last resort) as evidence also points out this is an ineffective method to prevent HIV transmissions.

Criminalizing HIV non-disclosure is not recommended as a public health approach and it also increases stigma, misinformation, and racially charged judicial decisions as Black communities are overrepresented in cases where charges were laid and in the media.

How to tell a potential partner about my HIV status

Deciding to tell your partners about your status depends on two things: your safety, and the probability of HIV transmission at a certain encounter. First and foremost, you must feel comfortable and safe disclosing your status.

Second, according to the Canadian law, HIV disclosure is only mandatory when there is a realistic chance of transmission - which unfortunately leaves a lot up to legal interpretation.

When telling a partner about your HIV status, be honest and direct. Although you have no control over someone’s response to your disclosure, it’s important to be honest about your history of HIV and STIs so all consenting parties are aware of possible risks and can plan accordingly.

How do I find support for my HIV infection?

First and foremost, you’ll want to find a doctor and healthcare team that is inclusive and that you get along with. Similarly with your mental health, it’s important to find mental wellness support to be there for you. Your local HIV community organization or LGBTQ2S+ Centre can support you in finding a care and support team.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Caley Shukalek

Caley is passionate about evidence-based, patient-centred care, including telemedicine that can provide high quality care from wherever a patient may choose.

He helped create Alberta's PrEP guidelines and works as a specialist in General Internal Medicine with additional training in sexual health, including HIV and sexually transmitted infections.

He holds an Masters of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University, an MD from the University of Calgary and an MSc from the University of Alberta.