The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) estimates that in 2011 there were 71,300 Canadians living with HIV. An estimated 3,175 Canadians became newly infected with HIV in 2011 and this rate has remained relatively constant over the last decade. One important factor that may contribute to the ongoing rates of HIV transmission in Canada is lack of knowledge about HIV and/or stigma related to HIV infection. Since 2003, PHAC has been regularly monitoring knowledge and attitudes of Canadians about issues related to HIV. Their most recent survey of the Canadian population confirms that, since 2003, HIV knowledge has been decreasing, while stigma against people living with HIV has not improved. The survey also found that Canadians do not perceive themselves to be at high risk for HIV or hepatitis C. This perception is reflected in the relatively low testing rates for HIV in Canada. These markers signify there is still work to be done to ensure that Canadians understand that HIV can and does affect all Canadians and that only effective prevention measures will ensure that transmission of these viruses do not occur.
Two thousand telephone interviews were completed by Canadians aged 16 years and older between March 1 and May 1, 2012. Similar studies were also conducted in 2003 and 2006, which allows for comparison of answers to standardized questions across time.
Knowledge of HIV/AIDS is dwindling.
An overall knowledge index was created based on a series of questions that reflect Canadians’ knowledge of HIV/AIDS. In 2012, 61% of Canadians had low or medium knowledge of HIV/AIDS, while 39% had high knowledge. This is very similar to the 2006 findings. However, knowledge levels have decreased in comparison to 2003 when 46% of Canadians had high knowledge.
Canadians were also asked to rate how knowledgeable they think they are about HIV/AIDS. In 2012, few Canadians felt they had a high level of knowledge of HIV. Specifically, 78% felt they were not knowledgeable or moderately knowledgeable, and 22% felt they were highly knowledgeable. Fewer Canadians rate their knowledge of HIV/AIDS as high in 2012 compared to 2006 (30%) and 2003 (25%).
Even fewer Canadians felt they were knowledgeable about hepatitis C. Eighty-six percent of Canadians felt they are not knowledgeable or moderately knowledgeable and only 13% felt they are highly knowledgeable.
Canadians’ perceptions of the seriousness of HIV/AIDS is on the decline.
In 2012, less than half (47%) of Canadians ranked HIV/AIDS as a serious disease in Canada, compared to 60% in 2003. Canadians ranked cancer (85%), heart disease (73%), diabetes (59%), and obesity (54%) as more serious than HIV/AIDS while hepatitis C ranked less serious (25%).
Stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV remain a reality in Canada.
An overall stigma index was created based on a series of questions that pertained to stigmatizing behaviours Canadians may have towards people living with HIV/AIDS. In 2012, 29% of Canadians had a medium or high level of stigma. This is largely unchanged from 2006.
The researchers also created an overall discrimination index based on a series of questions that pertained to the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS. In 2012, 34% of Canadians held medium or high levels of discriminatory beliefs about people living with HIV/AIDS. Compared to 2006, the proportion of Canadians with medium or high levels of discriminatory beliefs has declined from 42%.
Relatively few Canadians think they are at high risk for HIV or hepatitis C.
In 2012, the vast majority of Canadians (87%) perceived themselves to be at low risk for contracting HIV and only 1% thought they were at high risk. This is comparable to 2006 and 2003.
More Canadians identified they are at risk for hepatitis C compared to HIV. In 2012, 61% identified their risk as low,28% identified their risk as moderate, and 4% identified their risk as high.
HIV testing rates are on the rise; however testing rates are still low.
In 2012, 37% of Canadians reported ever testing for HIV (excluding testing for insurance, blood donation or research). This is an increase from 2006 (32%) and 2003 (27%).
Implications for HIV and Hepatitis C Programming
The survey provides a rich source of information that may be used to help inform responses to HIV and hepatitis C, including the development of strategies to combat HIV stigma and discrimination, prevention initiatives, and communication and social marketing activities.
- Public Health Agency of Canada. Summary: Estimates of HIV Prevalence and Incidence in Canada, 2011.
- Surveillance and Epidemiology Division, Professional Guidelines and Public Health Practice Division, Centre for Communicable Diseases and Infection Control, Public Health Agency of Canada, 2012. Available at: www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/aids-sida/publication/survreport/estimat2011-eng.php
- EKOS Research Associates Inc. 2012 HIV/AIDS Attitudinal Tracking Survey. Final Report. October 2012. Available at: http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/200/301/pwgsc-tpsgc/por-ef/public_health_ag...